Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Road to Ooty

The next day began with our bus pulling into the station in Bangalore. Not surprisingly, we both still felt miserable. We hadn’t had any food stay in our bodies, apart from 7-Up and Fanta, for over two days and we hadn’t slept properly for two nights. I pulled out my handy Lonely Planet and found the best hotel within a very short distance of the station. Frankly, it wasn’t a very good hotel, but it was close and it was clean and we were only going to be there for a few hours before the next leg of our trip.

We checked in and crashed right back to bed. A few hours later, around noon, we woke. We were famished but not sure if we could keep anything down. And the idea of Indian food was somewhat horrifying. Thankfully we were in a global tech hub, so global companies had opened up there. We found a cab and caught a ride to one of four Bangalore McDonald’s.

Of course, McDonald’s in India is a little different. First, there’s no beef. So we ordered a couple of McChicken’s. And they have to cook the fries a little differently, since I think that beef tallow (what the hell is tallow?) is still used in McD’s’ oil around the world. But it was relatively edible food. Of course, we couldn’t eat our entire meal. Just a few bites here and there. But it was a step.

Or not. As soon as we got back to our room Colleen had to forfeit her lunch. Back to square one. But I got to keep mine.

We had to keep slogging on. We caught a rickshaw to the bus station, which was right across the street from our hotel, ‘cause we were feeling that weak. We found platform seven and waited for our nice AC Volvo bus to Ooty to arrive. I had specially booked seats 1 and 2 right behind the driver so that we could have a great view through the trip up into the Nilgiri Hills and enjoy the sights. Unfortunately, when our bus arrived it turned out that those were the two spots that had absolutely no leg room. We’d be cramped in on this 11 hour drive.

(By the way – in case you’re wondering – buses in India, and in all other non-western countries to which we’ve travelled, don’t have bathrooms. You get sick, it’s a problem. You have other issues, which I had but haven’t documented in this travelogue, it’s a problem.)

It was a long drive. I can usually read while on a trip, but not in my condition. The seats were cramped, but it had been a good call to book the front, where we could enjoy the view and where we weren’t as likely to get ill from the motion. We went through Mysore and then on to Ooty. We made a final stop at a small diner beside the road about 5 or 6 hours into the ride. I had told the gentlemen who ran the hotel we’d be staying at in Ooty that I’d call before we left Bangalore telling him when we’d be getting in. Unfortunately, the phone lines were never working. (A surprisingly common problem in a country that is supposed to be a tech hub.) At the rest stop I was able to get four older gentlemen to pull out their mobile phones and see if they could figure out how to call my hotel's number. It seems overly complex for even Indians to figure out which prefixes need to be used and how many digits. But eventually, thanks to the old dudes in their lawn chairs at the rest stop, I got through and let the hotel know that we’d be arriving very late.

(An aside – Everyone in India has a mobile phone. This, in itself, isn’t surprising. But it seems to cause challenges for those of us who don’t have a phone on them and, as a result, don’t have an SMS number. One gentleman couldn’t seem to figure out how to book me a bus ticket without an SMS number until I showed him how to uncheck the box on his computer. And in one of our hotels it wouldn’t let me sign up for WiFi access unless I gave them my SMS number. It has become an automatic assumption, like having a home address.)

It turned out that the rest area was the last stop before the great push to Ooty. After that point the road became ridiculous. We were on a giant Volvo bus going around hairpin turns, one after another, for hours. At one point we hit a stretch that was down to a single land of incredibly uneven pavement. I said to Colleen “At least we don’t have to deal with oncoming traffic anymore.” I’m such an ignorant foreigner. It was still two lanes, and there were large vehicles coming the other way that had to negotiate with our bus.

We only had to stop a few times to back up to let other vehicles by. Our bus driver believed that might made right, and that he should be blowing past everyone. It was actually a pretty amazing driving feat. Of course, we had just spent the past two days being ill, so a drive like this wasn’t the best thing for us. Fortunately for us, we had no food in our stomachs to lose. (We hadn’t even thought about chancing the road side restaurant.) But the others on the bus started getting ill, including the guy sitting right behind us. So we had to sit on this lurching vehicle with the sound of yakking in our ear as we fought to control our “issues”. The lovely part is that when someone’s sick bag became full they would go to the front of the bus and chuck the clear bag out the driver’s window. Nasty!

Speaking of littering, my favourite surreal part of the trip came when we went through the checkpoint that led our bus into a national park. There are signs all over the place that plastic is banned in the parks. (Plastic is banned. Littering doesn’t seem to be. Bizarre.) When we first got on the bus they had given everyone a plastic water bottle, so everyone on the bus had at least one plastic bottle. Colleen and I probably had six between us. So when we got to the checkpoint the park plastic police had a few words with our driver, who then passed them a solitary water bottle that he’d had at hand for just that purpose, then we drove on. I said out loud “You’ve got to be kidding me!” and Colleen gave me a big Sshhhhh. (It’s sad. I believe that India is likely the most litter filled country I’ve been to. But they seem to want to make plastic the evil in a few parks that they want to keep clean. There’s no focus on behaviour, just plastic. It's like making guns illegal but still letting people kill one another. I must be missing a cultural thing here somewhere.)

Apart from the crazy curves and death defying passing the drive through the park area was pretty cool. We passed three or four elephants just hanging out by the side of the road. It’s also tiger territory, but we didn’t see any of them.

So we finally pull into Ooty on our now very gross bus and are so happy to be done. We’ve survived the ordeal and made it to what is reported to be a very peaceful “hill station”. It’s late, but we got in a lot earlier than first planned due to our driver's technique. We get a rickshaw to the hotel we’d booked. It’s down a lavender lined lane and I have high hopes. We get there and meet the proprietor, who is a lovely older man whose kids live in Seattle. He’s been to Vancouver and we have a nice chat. Then we go to our room. Disaster. Lonely Planet had said that the rooms “carry a whiff of age and colonial class”. The only whiff these rooms carried was the whiff of their bathrooms. They may have been clean, but they certainly weren’t sanitary. And the colonial class was completely missing, unless you find rock hard beds classy and colonial.

I was crushed. It was the end of another long day. It was too late and we were too exhausted to find an alternative. Colleen was an amazing trooper. She kept an upbeat attitude, fixing up the bed with the blankets that appeared OK and just staying positive, even when I knew she felt like death. I couldn’t have appreciated her attitude more since I was pretty much finished with travelling at that point. I was thinking that maybe I’m just too old to deal with this stuff anymore. It was perhaps the first time in any of my trips when I’ve been ready to pack it in and just head home.

We slept poorly and fully clothed to try to minimize contact with the bed. I woke up around 5:00 determined that the first thing we’d do the next morning was find a great place to stay, whatever it took.

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