Tirapati to the Indian Ocean

After wading through the colorfully attired hairless families sprawled around the cement floor of the train station enjoying naps and snacks, passed the “urination free zone” (which is in reality a urination zone), and across the railroad tracks I found myself on the platform waiting for the train to Chennai a.k.a. Madras. After a brief stop in the ladies waiting room (mostly bald ladies) where I believe I confused the shower for the toilet (very hard to tell sometimes) I settled down to wait for the train.

No reservations necessary. Soon the platform started teeming with bodies and luggage, I began to prepare for the ascent onto the car an experience that should be classified as an extreme contact sport. As soon as the train was spotted a surge of porters and men started running and jumping on the cars flinging small handkerchiefs and bits of cloth through the windows. Ok so this was a new experience. I asked a person pressed up against me and it turns out this was the way to reserve a seat on a non-reservation sort of train.

Not having bits of cloth and being somewhat hampered by my packs I resorted to the tried and true method of shoving my way onto the train. It is absolutely necessary to begin this process before anyone begins to disembark — the general idea being to shove as many bodies into the extremely narrow space of a train car door. If traffic is moving in two different directions all the better — it is essential to make boarding the train as difficult as possible – because when you finally board you feel a great sense of accomplishment. Fortunately, being encased in the armor of my luggage I’m able to shove like a native. Being somewhat tallish also helps. I must admit when I finally boarded and found myself faced with very small pieces of cloth strewn haphazardly across the seats it was very hard not to shove them on the floor and find myself a nice comfortable window seat far away from the toilets, particularly since I felt I earned such a right given the above ordeal, but alas I’m a guest in this country and try to respect local
customs.

Found myself a seat near the very noxious toilet on the aisle and proceeded to stare back at my fellow passengers for the next 4 hours.

The train (of course) arrived into Chennai in the dark. And of course, I had big fights with the Rickshaw drivers.

Here in India you generally have 4 local transport options when arriving into a major city via plane or train.

Option 1) Visit the pre-paid taxi counter before leaving station/terminal. Generally more expensive then option 2, however, option 2 can often be much more expensive if you don’t know the local prices.

Option 2) Auto-rickshaw or Taxi that you negotiate yourself in advance. Although every major city seems to have a local ordinance requiring the use of meters, every single meter in every single city I’ve visited is broken.

Option 3) Try to find a bus. This is difficult to do at night with lots of luggage.

Option 4) Walk. Given that it’s generally dark upon arrival this is not really a viable option.

I selected option 2 initially had big fights with the rickshaw drivers over the “broken meters” finally attempted to enlist the tourist police who merely said “there is no problem madam, just use the pre-paid taxi stand.” Which is what I eventually did, fending off the 15 people trying to cut in front of me with some teeth-baring and snarls to which the reply generally was “madam, sorry, sorry, sorry” as they renewed their efforts to shove in front of me.

Finally checked into a hotel that had cable TV and nursed a bad cold for about 3 days emerging only to frequent the nicely air-conditioned bookstore I found and to consume fruit lassies. Decided while watching film after film that the best solution was to just head for the Andaman islands.

Finally dragged myself out of bed for the initial recon mission with regards to where one might purchase a ticket for the boat to Port Blair. This took half a day. After several conversations with the shipping clerks etc., I determined that I needed to buy my ticket the following day to sail on the day after, and had to have 4 copies of my passport, 4 copies of my Indian Visa, and 2 photos in order to complete the purchase.

Booking transport here in India generally involves the completion of many forms, lots of lines and a fair amount of growling and teeth-baring. It is important to look intimidating or you never get anywhere given the plethora of would be travelers jumping the queue to book tickets for their 30 family members all traveling together within the next hour.

After my recon mission, I returned the following day with copies and photos in hand. After the unavoidable argument with the rickshaw driver, I made inquiries with regards to where I purchased my ticket for the vessel to the Andaman Islands.

I was pointed to a small alley between 2 buildings. Couldn’t believe it was the route to the ticket office, looked more like the path to a toilet or an actual urination zone. However, I walked through and found myself facing a decrepit “maze” with several lanes leading to the ticket counters. Appeared to be a ladies queue so I jostled my way through the mob realizing the initial step was merely to obtain the reams of forms. For some reason the counter windows were only 1/2 a foot off the ground. This meant that one had to assume either a crouched position or completely double over while keeping elbows prone and throwing out frequent snarls to dissuade the “ladies” from shoving their way in front, and alternating between shouting through the small opening and looking at the clerk with 1 smiling eye — very important to always appear friendly yet firm. After several minutes of acrobatic maneuvers I received my stack of forms and was told to proceed into the office for berth assignment, and then return to the counter for actual ticket purchase.

I handed my forms to the assistant outside the captain’s office and found myself sucked into the following conversation:

Asst.: You have not fully complete your forms

Me: Yes it is complete
Ass: You failed to indicate your shoe size, favorite color, actual hour of birth (within 5 seconds), the name of the train upon which you arrived in Chennai, the date and time you plan to leave India, your height, weight, the name of the ship, and the complete names of your brothers and father.

Me: Why do you need this information

Ass: It is required

Me: Why

Ass: Form must be complete

Me:

Ass: Red ink is strictly prohibited

Me: Why didn’t you tell me before?

Ass: Red ink is strictly prohibited

Me: Do you have a new form?

Ass: Forms available only from the ticket windows

Thus I returned to the ticket counter repeated the previously mentioned acrobatics, elbowing a veiled “lady” in retaliation for her elbow in my ribs as she attempted to shove her way in front of me.

Procured form and returned to ass’s desk.

Me: Can I borrow a blue or black pen? I only have red.

Ass: Red ink is strictly prohibited

Me: Yes I know, can I borrow your pen, please?

Ass: It is strictly prohibited for me to loan you my pen.

Me: Right I understand, all I have is red.

Ass: Red ink is strictly prohibited.

Me: Right, which is why I want to borrow your pen. it’s India…anything is possible right?

Ass:

I completed the forms in entirety and was ushered into the captains office, where I was told to sit while the Captain finished his conversation, drank tea, and ate a plate of cookies with other family in office. Handed over my forms and was assured I would be put in a cabin where there were at least a few other ladies.

Returned to maze, repeated acrobatics, and finally purchased my ticket.

Three hours later I returned to my guest house to pack for my journey the next day.

Arrived back at the shipyard the next morning wandered through the gate and was pointed in the direction of a very large ship the exact furtherest point in the port from where I stood. Commenced the hike across the railroad tracks, and field doing my best to avoid the piles of human excrement smeared across the route.

Finally made it to the road only to be almost flattened by speeding exhaust spewing buses loaded with boat passengers (heading for my boat).

I’m not sure if it’s the language barrier or my lack of cultural understanding, but I always seem to find myself taking the most disgusting and circuitous routes.

Arrived sweating in the “boarding area” was waved by the health inspection table and found myself engulfed in a sea of colorful families milling around eating, sleeping, and placing their luggage on my feet.

Eventually we tromped and shoved our way up the gangplank on to the ship. Another interesting aspect of Indian transport mentality is that it’s very important to always be the first people onboard regardless of a guaranteed berth or seat.

The boat ride was exceedingly boring. After my initial fight to change cabins (found myself in a cabin with 8 Indian men), found myself lodging with a very nice Doctor and his wife. At the time, I was still suffering from my cold, thus due to boredom the Doctor insisted on going over my symptoms and checking my medical kit. Eventually my friends upgraded to a deluxe cabin where we spent a lovely afternoon with me trying on all the saris in the Mrs. Doctors bag, including complete jewelry changes, and different colored forehead dots. The Dr. thoroughly enjoyed himself playing photographer.

There was 1 other westerner onboard, we met at the vegetarian meal table. Veg and non-veg are completely separate. Wound up trading with my friends a few times — since they had non-veg and we were all pretty sick of the food. Anyway, Morgan and I spent many hours together staring at the Bay of Bengal, drinking chai out of specimen cups and posing for pictures with Indian tourists. She’d been to India before so I managed to collect a few tips.

After three days the boat — filled to the brim with trash — land was spotted. A fellow passenger and native of Port Blair insisted on giving me a list of books that I had to read at the public library before heading out to any other islands. Finally we docked in Port Blair. It was nice to be on land, despite the difficulty in walking.

Part 4 coming shortly…

My brother claims there isn’t enough excitement in my India tales thus far, I promise things are going to pick up a bit shortly…