It was supposed to be so easy. I had been trapped in Thrissur for a few days. My time in Thrissur wasn't a total waste: I made it out to the holy temple of Guruvayur, and the elephant spa adjacent to it. But working for an online travel agency I have become accustomed to a certain about of immediacy in the purchase of airfare. Prices are readily available and tickets are procured as soon as the credit card is charged. Not quite the case in India.
Every step of the process was wrought with bureaucracy, involving numerous phone calls from agent to airline, the use of several well-worn books, and of course having to repeat the process at two agencies, to ensure that I wasn't getting overly raped on "convenience charges".
In any case, once I sorted out my flight from Kochi to Chennai, it was supposed to be a simple matter of getting to Kochi. I knew that my wasted time in Thrissur would prevent me from spending much time exploring the famous backwaters of Kochi, but that was where the airport was, and I needed to get there. My guide book explained that buses left Thuissur for Kochi every half hour, and that it was a two hour ride to Kochi. Given that I wanted to get the hell out of Thrissur, I wanted the first available bus, but had no idea what time it came.
So I hired a rickshaw to take me to the bus station. There, I looked around for a bus with a sign indicating Kochi or Cochin (the former British name) as its destination. I was coming up dry so I paced around looking for a target to ask for assistance, my heavy backpack quickly drawing out a layer of sweat across my back.
I spotted two uniformed men sitting in a booth and figured they were either station officials or police, either of which should have been qualified to help. The men were clearly in the midst of an engaging conversation, so I patiently stood in front of them and waited for a break in the discussion before interrupting. I did, asked whether either man spoke any English, and when one nodded, explained that I needed to get to Kochi.
The man clearly wasn't incredibly interested in assisting me. He spoke in terse grunts and gestured towards the end of the station, saying any buses arriving down there could get me there. Any of them? Were the routes the same? Would they all go directly there? None of my questions were answered. As the first bus arrived, I saw what I was up against.
As soon as the bus came to a stop, a mob of potential riders appeared from nowhere. They gathered around the door, and as soon as the door opened, a wave of humanity squeezing out slammed into a wave of humanity hell bent on getting in. Backs were climbed over, bags were shoved, words were hurled, and somehow a handful of passengers loaded and some disembarked. With my heavy pack and my hands full, this was going to suck.
When a bus arrived at one of the stalls at the end of the stand, I joined the melee, under the assumption that if I didn't make this bus, I'd be standing in that hot city for another half hour. But my Western notions of personal space, respect for others and an assumption that there would be room for all, made me a born loser at the bus-loading wrestle-rama.
I rode the human wave up the stairs into the crammed bus and scanned around for an empty seat. As the current pushed me past the driver. He conveniently hopped out a small door next to his seat, dashing any possibility of me confirming I was on the right bus. The wave pushed me towards the back, and as I approached the very back of the bus, I could tell I was out of luck: no empty seats. I'd have to squeeze my way off and wait for the next bus.
As I realized this, I turned around and waited my turn among the other standing passengers, to exit. A man behind me began applying pressure, trying to push me towards the door. The crowd in front of me wasn't something I was going to be able to move by shoving, so I waited, seeing it would take a few minutes as a few passengers at a time trickled out the door. The man shoved me again. I held firm. I wasn't going to let this inconsiderate asshole make me look like another shoving jerk.
"Excuse me, I want to get off!" the man said in English.
"Hey so do I, but we're going to have to wait for the others to get off too!" I countered.
He wasn't taking no for an answer, so he signed loudly, and promptly squeezed up against me, worked his way around me, and did the same past the rest of the queue.
Impatient bastard. We'd all have our chance to get off--I was wrong. The bus lurched, suddenly put into reverse, causing the entire mass of standing passengers to fall forward into each other, and then back against each other as the bus pulled out of the parking lot.
Well, I guess was on the bus. Which bus, and to which destination, I hadn't a clue. Fuck. I hadn't even purchased a ticket.
As the bus wove through the teeming streets, tossing the standing passengers against each other, and blasting its horn at a staccato pace, I saw that I was going to need to purchase a ticket after all. There was a man slowly making his way towards the back of the bus, a filthy wad of Rupees in his fist, he was meeting every passenger, literally face-to-face, and exchanging a ticket for the appropriate fare. Surely this man would be able to tell me where I was going.
When it was my turn to make the transaction, the ticket man had squeezed right up against me, belly to belly, sniffling as he mumbled something which was surely a request for the fare. "Kochi?" I asked, figuring at worst I'd get the Indian head waggle indicating yes, and then I'd hand over some Rupees. No dice. He shook his head muttering again.
"Cochin?" Maybe he hadn't heard me. Nothing but his open hand, asking for fare. "I'll pay you when you tell me where I am going," I said. Shit, at this point an eavesdropping co-passenger coming to my rescue would be really handy right about now. "Little help?" No dice. He was getting testy, clearly wanting to be done with his job. He grunted, squeezed past me and went on to request fare from the next passenger. Fuck him. I didn't care! I'd pay the bastard when he came back towards the front, and again only under the condition that he told me where the fuck we were going!
Now the driver was on a roll. He had settled in to a pattern that was predictable in it's phases but not in its intervals: Gun it. Slam the brakes. Gun! Slam! Gun! Slam! There was no anticipating when the next gun or sl--GUN! SLAM! Fuck... even the gunning wasn't a steady but forceful application of the gas pedal; the driver would make a few slight hesitations along the arc of his acceleration, making it even more impossible to anticipate the acceleration and avoid slamming into the other standing passengers.
The ticket man was making his way back toward me, and I was ready to restart the 'where am I going' confrontation. He was uninterested though, acting as if he had totally forgotten that there was one foreigner on the bus who hadn't paid, and he hurriedly squeezed against and then past me, sniffling all the way.
I was seething. Fucking hell, what was with these people? That stupid fucking loading procedure! What possible logic could have led these people to load a bus before people had gotten off?! I just couldn't imagine how the people could be tolerant of the status quo. Indians are an intelligent bunch; hasn't someone over the years thought "you know… what if we let people disembark before we allowed people to cram on the bus? Maybe we could even make the ticket transaction on the curb, or as the passengers file on?" What was the sense of sending the sniffler snaking his way through that clog of humanity?! He obviously hated his job!
Some traditions make sense to persist. The hand-eating? Well, you save on cutlery, and don't pass germs from unclean tableware. The lack of toilet paper? Well, water does clean better than paper. The bucket showering? A lot less water used per shower. But why not queue? Why not have some respect for your fellow man?! God forbid someone should institute some sort of traffic laws, or keep these slow, lumbering vehicles to specific roads!
Oh fuck, a hair away from a head-on with another bus. This stupid driver didn't even know when to give up the goat when there wasn't actually time enough to pass. Relent, relent motherfucker!! Just try passing this guy again in a minute! It was a constant game of chicken.
Gun-slam! Fuck!!!! I could totally empathize with the driver's mentality: get there before the rest of these fuckers do. Hell, I drive like that at home. But one needs to accept the limitations of their equipment, and consider the passengers. The most brain-dead NASCAR driver would know not to try overtaking a semi at 70MPH with a few hundred feet of room before the oncoming car, if they were driving a Chevette stuffed to the gills with people.
So there I was, nose-to-armpit with these animals, going to fuck-knows-where, but at l east my ticket was free! According to my book, my intended destination was 2.5 hours south of my origin. I figured that as long as my compass indicated I was heading south, that I could just hop off at the 2.5 hour mark, station or no station, and get a cab the rest of the way.
And that's what I did; I stood, sandwiched between sweating humans who took it all in stride, as I would have loved to do, if only one of the things currently driving me up the wall were abated. If only I knew where I was going... if only it weren't 250 degrees Celsius in there... if only that sweaty bastard would stop rubbing up against me... if only if only I knew for certain that the sniffler hadn't given me bird flu...
I bounded off the bus when we reached the 2.5 hour mark, possessions in hand, drenched with mine and my cohorts' sweat. I caught a cab within minutes and it was a short jaunt to the hotel I pointed to in my book. It wasn't until that moment that I realized that my hotel wasn't in the city of Kochi/Cochin. I had failed to realize that the city of Kochi was actually divided into the Fort Cochin area and the Ernakulam area. The latter was the word that the sniffler had mumbled, and in all likelihood, that's where the bus was going. Everyone would have had to take a cab to Kochi from Ernakulam. Damn me and my impatience. My ignorance. My lack of attention to detail. I had made my own bed, as usual, and had no one to be angry at but myself.