Public transport: you have to love it

Gotta love it ... public transport in Andhra Pradesh, Vijayawada.
Gotta love it ... public transport in Andhra Pradesh, Vijayawada. Photo: Getty Images

The stares are a dead giveaway. Not many Westerners get on this bus. Probably with good reason, too.

Seven or eight sets of eyes widen sharply and lock themselves upon us as we lug our bags up the grimy stairs and start looking for a place to perch for the next few hours. Among the staring eyes are plenty of places to sit on the plastic-covered benches of varying colours.

"Sit!" the driver shrieks. "Anywhere!" He's shrieking to make himself heard above the Bollywood music booming from the dodgy old stereo perched on his dashboard.

At least there's plenty of space. It's a big bus with not many people aboard, so we sling our packs onto sticky velour, take the seats next to them and settle in among the staring eyes and the smell of motor oil and the sound of Bollywood.

It's hard to know how long we'll be sitting here. Officially, the journey from Chennai to Mamallapuram takes three hours, but time is elastic in this place, dependent as it is on traffic and mechanics and good fortune and the whim of the thousands of gods who are in charge.

One of those gods, Ganesha, sits on the dashboard next to the stereo, so at least we can assume he's on our side. There's a crack in the windscreen in front of him but no one seems concerned. It's also about 40 degrees in here, so it's a relief when the driver lets out the brake and eases us on to one of Chennai's teeming streets, and the sticky air flows through the open windows.

Public transport: you have to love it. You can't seriously say you've experienced a place until you've sampled the public transport. It's like a diorama of the city it services, a visitor's introduction to real life. Japan is the bullet train. London is a red double-decker bus. New York is the subway.

You can have some memorable experiences on public transport. And for some reason it seems that the more scungy the vessel, the more interesting the experience. Trains in Switzerland are boring. Rusty buses filled with chickens in Ghana are awesome.

This bus, the one that's making achingly slow progress through Chennai, is a riot. It started the journey basically empty but in the past half-hour has become more and more crowded, to the point where my backpack has gone from occupying its own slice of colourful velour to occupying my lap. The seven or eight sets of staring eyes have become about 50 sets of staring eyes.

Outside is just as crazy. There's a temple in the dead centre of a busy road. You know it's a temple because there's a street sign in front of it bearing a huge exclamation mark and the word "Temple". Handy. The bus swerves around it, Bollywood still blasting, and almost crashes into a cow. It's not amused.

There's a tap on my back. I look around and into one of those sets of staring eyes. "Excuse me," the guy sitting behind me says. "What is your country?"

That's a standard question around here. "Australia."

"Oh," he beams. "Ricky Ponting."

That's a standard reaction around here. "Yep."

He looks around to the guy sitting next to him and nods, pointing at me. "Ricky Ponting."

It's been at least two hours and we're still making our way through the knotted streets of Chennai, seemingly no closer to Mamallapuram, the small town south of Tamil Nadu's capital. The crowd around me ebbs and flows, a non-stop parade of all walks of Indian life boarding and leaving our rattling old bus.

Eventually, we grind to a halt and I look at the driver. "Mamallapuram?" He just shakes his head and jumps onto the street.

The guy behind me taps me on the shoulder again. "It is a breakdown. You should get off now."

And so we all pile off our old clunker, taking shade in a small storefront while about a million Indians crowd around the engine and speculate. Time, once again, is elastic. We could be here for hours under the corrugated-iron roof waiting for our bus to fire back into life.

Soon the crowd around the engine dissipates and huge sacks of vegetables are unloaded from the roof. Passengers start looking for another bus to flag down. The legendary Indian patience is waning.

The Ricky Ponting fan strolls over to our perch, jabbing a finger at the busy highway.

"It's time to get another bus. Come on, I can help you."

And he does. Pretty soon another creaky old bus has pulled up next to us, sacks of vegetables are loaded onto the roof and everyone scrambles aboard looking to claim a seat on the colourful, plastic-covered benches.

There's more Bollywood music blaring from the stereo and more staring eyes. Not many Westerners get on this bus. Probably with good reason, too.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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