So You Think Airline Travel Is Tough?

Fairly typical bus in rural India. Note ladder to roof for heavy luggage and, occasionally, extra passengers. Read on!

When was the last time you heard someone complain about sardine-can, economy-class seating on your least favorite airline? Just yesterday, right? Or, almost certainly, within the last few weeks? Well, I’d like to bring a little perspective to these troubles. Allow me to regale you with a few tales from my Peace Corps days of bus and train travel in India.

Luggage Rack Luxury

One time I was traveling from “my” village, Rajnagar (rough translation: Kingston), on a mission1 to the city of Jabalpur, about 200 miles (320 km) to the southeast. I first had to spend several hours on a couple of crowded buses to get to the nearest railway station at Satna. I arrived early in the evening, then waited on the platform for the next southbound train. When it finally pulled in at about 10 p.m., it was already jammed. It looked as though I’d be spending the night standing in the crowded, swaying third-class car. Sometime after midnight, however, enough people got off at an intermediate stop to allow me to find several newly vacated linear feet of space in a luggage rack above the seats (see photo below), where I quickly fell asleep, despite my bed’s being a mere row of slats. I arrived in Jabalpur, somewhat refreshed, in the morning.

The luggage racks and seats in this railway car are a great improvement over the accommodations described above. This much newer car even has fans – an unheard of luxury in my time.

Traveling With Pets

Another memorable railroad-plus-bus adventure took place with my Peace Corps friends Tom and Michelle on our return from a few days’ visit to Bombay (today called Mumbai). Tom and Michelle lived in another village, about 60 miles (100 km) from Rajnagar, but we were able to meet in Chhatarpur, our district’s main town, and travel together from there. While in Bombay, we went to the pet bazaar, where Tom and Michelle acquired a cat and I purchased a beautiful purple parrot. The bird was in a cage unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was crafted out of wide strips of thin, rusty metal.

Michelle held the cat in her lap throughout the trip back to Chhatarpur. At every stop of the overnight trip, she and the kitty – on a leash – got off the train and took a little walk. Her hope was that the cat would see this as an opportunity to pee. It didn’t quite work out that way. The feline held on till we got off the train in the morning and were already in the bus en route to Chhatarpur. It was still in Michelle’s lap when we hit a pothole big enough to overpower its phenomenal bladder. Michelle finished the trip wearing the ineffable scent of Pisse de Chat.

That pothole turned out to be the second “highlight” of the trip. The first took place in the wee hours of the morning while we were sacked out on the train. We were in third class – Peace Corps volunteers’ customary accommodations – but had reserved three places in a sleeping car. The bunks were arrayed three high, and I was up near the ceiling with my parrot, whose cage was hanging – swaying, really – from a light fixture. It held nicely till the train lurched to an unscheduled stop. It crashed to the floor, waking up all the nearby passengers and giving the already terrified bird2 the fright of his young life.

Rooftop Accommodations

After a visit to an Irish dentist near the city of Indore, I stopped for a short visit with a Peace Corps friend, Chuck Hall,3 in his nearby village. I remember just one thing from that visit: a bus ride to a nearby location that Chuck wanted me to see. I was long used to buses so overcrowded it seemed impossible to squeeze in even one more passenger – yet it always was possible to do so. But not on this occasion. There was no room for even a chicken. So Chuck and I climbed the ladder attached to the rear of the bus and rode on the roof, lying down – for safety – amid other passengers’ luggage and several 50 kg (110 lb) sacks of grain, all protected from sliding off by a low (perhaps 10 inches – 25 cm) fence around the perimeter of the roof.

The Best Rooftop Adventure

But the rooftop adventure to beat them all took place barely a month after our group of volunteers had arrived in India. As we were about to finish our final month of training, we were all joined at the training camp by the “village level workers” (i.e., local extension agents of the state Agriculture Department) that each of us would be collaborating with over the next two years. Our co-workers’ participation in the last several days of our training was intended not only to help us to get to know each other, but also to give them an opportunity to learn something about our preparation and to get a feel for the cultural baggage we were bringing with us.

At the end of the final day of training, our group of roughly 15 volunteers, each one accompanied by his or her Ag Department co-worker, headed for the villages – scattered all across the Texas-sized state of Madhya Pradesh (Central State) – to which we were each separately assigned. Tom and I and Bob, a third volunteer – all of whose villages were located in Chhatarpur District – began with an easy, two-hour bus trip to Bhopal, the state capital, where we spent the night slapping at mosquitoes in the waiting room of the central bus station. At first light, we got ready to board the bus to Chhatarpur, about 200 miles (330 km) to the northeast, a long day’s dusty trip along single-lane roads.4

Before we could board the bus, however, we had to get our trunks onto the roof. The Peace Corps had generously provided each volunteer with an empty trunk to be used for anything we wished to bring with us from the United States. I recall that one person had filled his trunk with toilet paper, a pointless exercise since no trunk could accommodate two years’ worth of the stuff, which was unavailable in rural India. I don’t remember what I had in my trunk, but it was heavy, and so were the other two.

Our Peace Corps trunks looked a lot like this.

Our co-workers negotiated with the porters (“bearers” in Indian English). But they were demanding too stiff a fee for climbing the ladder (see photo at the beginning of this post) with a heavy trunk balanced atop their heads, cushioned only by a coiled length of cloth. “Inadmissible,” said all three of our co-workers, who felt the porters were taking advantage of the foreigners. So Tom, Bob and I somehow managed to get the trunks up there ourselves, with one of us pushing each trunk partway up the ladder, the next guy somehow wrangling the thing almost to the roof, and the third guy grabbing the upper handle from the roof and tugging it up the rest of the way.

And you think getting your roll-on into an airplane’s overhead compartment is a problem?


1. Here was my “mission.” When I embarked on this trip, I’d been in Rajnagar only a few months. Several of the farmers I’d begun working with to help create a major boost in the yield of their wheat crop had told me of their frustrating inability to get the local electric authority to string lines out to their fields so they could install electric pumps in their wells to better irrigate their crop. They asked if I, a Hindi-speaking foreigner (OK, let’s be candid – a white guy, who they hoped would be persuasive), would go to the electric company’s headquarters in Jabalpur and go to bat for them.

In my youthful naivete, impetuousness and – frankly – arrogance, I thought that perhaps being an exotic outsider could help me break through the bureaucratic logjam and get “my” farmers hooked up to the grid by speaking to the head honcho. So off I went. I’d made no arrangements in advance. My plan was simple: stop first at the house where a fellow volunteer from my training group, Mary Beth, was living, borrow her bicycle, pedal out to the electric authority’s headquarters, find the office of the top guy, knock on the door and make the case. And that’s just what I did.

In retrospect, of course, it took a high-octane blend of chutzpah and optimism even to imagine I’d find the gentleman in his office, let alone expect him to grant me an unscheduled audience. But, to jump right to the end of the story, I lucked out. He was in his office, he asked his secretary to send me in, he humored me by listening politely, asking a few questions and then promising to look into the matter. It was all I could expect, and that was the end of my mission. When I returned to Rajnagar, I told “my” farmers what had been promised.

The best part is that a few months later, despite a few hiccups, it all came to pass. The farmers’ wells were connected to the grid and electric motors began pumping water, replacing their ancient ox-powered Persian wheels (a chain of buckets – see photos below).

Persian wheels. Oxen driven in a circle drive a gear linked to a chain of buckets that lift water out of a well and spill it into an irrigation ditch. In arid northwestern India, camels replace the oxen.

2. As it turned out, the bird never got accustomed to people. He’d dance nervously in his cage so much that I named him Vitus – for St. Vitus, the patron saint of dancers and the namesake of St. Vitus’ dance (Sydenham’s chorea).

3. If anyone reading this knows how to get in touch with Chuck, with whom I’ve long since lost contact, please let me know. He’s originally from Pawnee City, Nebraska. Thanks.

4. In those days, at least, intercity roads in Madhya Pradesh had just a single paved lane, with wide, unpaved shoulders on both sides to allow vehicles to pass in either direction, one set of wheels on the pavement, the other on the shoulder.

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