Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Driving across the country can be so much fun!

My entire insane family is totally addicted to wheels. No, we are not car freaks in the ordinary everyday sense of the word. We don’t want expensive or phoren cars, and we don’t speed or drive rashly in the city. We are NOT that kind of car freaks. Instead, we drive small cars, a Wagon R, an Alto, an 800 Duo, and we drive well within the city speed limits, preferring to take our time getting from point A to point B. we also follow the traffic rules, yes, even when no one is watching, even in the middle of the night, even on totally empty streets!

And yet, we are the biggest car freaks I’ve ever met! How so? Well, there is absolutely no other form of transport that we would rather choose, no matter what the distance, than a car. On any holiday, any kind of travel plans, we are likely to just head off in a cavalcade of small cars rather than fuss with buses, trains, flights and such. We all find it a lot more comfortable, and flexible, and we enjoy the freedom of being in control, stopping where we wish, not stopping if we don’t wish, choosing our own route, and so on. Plus, we really enjoy driving. So, long drives have a whole new meaning for this family!

For example, when a huge move was planned, all the way across the country to Kolkata, instead of sitting and looking at railway timetables and things, we sat down for a family conference. Our family unit, my parents, my man and I, and our two-year-old daughter, were about to move from Pune to Kolkata. Democratic to the core, our major family decisions have always been made via family conferences, even when we were little kids, so having one now, for such a major move, was the obvious course of action. Ideas were batted around, as we tried to decide whether taking a flight was a better idea than trains, how to handle the packers, and more. Should someone go with the stuff? In their truck? What about receiving the stuff? If we sent off all the stuff too early, how were we to manage the last few days? And if we left on the day we sent the stuff, we would get to Kolkata too early, way before the stuff arrived, and then how would we manage? That was a problem for sure. Pretty soon, from all this brainstorming over how to manage, the simplest, easiest, and most likely for all parties to agree with solution soon came up. “Let’s just drive!”

 To many Indians, especially of my father’s age, who are living in India, this would be an impossible, unimaginable trip. Drive two thousand four hundred kilometers across the country! With two senior citizens! And a tiny little kid! I could imagine any number of people, my friends as well as those of my father, having heart attacks at the very thought! For Indians of my father’s generation, the famous and infamous midnight’s children, this is not a very surprising attitude. Cars are comparatively new things for them, things they met pretty late in life. Born at the time of or growing up around independence, they were witnesses of the changes India saw in the following decades.

They saw the country go from the “Mother India” type, chiefly agrarian, mostly village based country – to the growth oriented, urban minded, raring to be a world community member, nation it has now become. Yet, in the initial years after independence at least, the change was quite slow, and old habits really died hard. However, with economic growth picking up pace and becoming much more rapid and e-controlled in the 1980s, people like my dad, basically middle class, recently upwardly mobile, and firmly urban, began to be able to own cars. Loans became easier to get, and cheaper to pay off, and a new spurt in the automobile industry gave people like my crazy old man a much wider choice in models and types.

This was when my family’s own love for wheels, and for the road really began. With as many as seven people jam-packed into a miniscule Standard 10 (more or less the equivalent of a VW beetle), or eleven people (8 adults) in a Maruti Omni (a smallish minivan), we began to drive around and travel South India by road. One of our more infamous and wild trips included the four of us – dad, mom, bro, and I – driving from Chennai to Bangalore in the middle of an actual cyclone, while the little car kept side-slipping in the gale force winds and the massive torrents flowing across the roads kept trying to wash away our little metal box on wheels with them! We kids inherited this insane love of the road from the oldies, in a most natural way, having grown up practically IN cars. And we have been lucky, both of us, to find partners who share that love. Not surprisingly, the third generation of the clan, my daughter is now being taught to revel in the complete freedom and convenience that “let’s just take the car and head out, and forget about all this ticket-wicket!” can give to travel, and my brother’s kids are very likely to learn the same!

So, with a detailed route mapped out, and with stopovers tentatively planned, we headed out on our long trip, Christmas morning, really early in the morning. The plan was to go via Hyderabad, rather than via Nagpur because – as we have seen – the roads down south are so much better, the streets much safer, and we really wanted to take advantage of the brand new Golden Quadrangle – a perimeter like stretch of six lane highways that are still under construction, in an attempt to make India much more easily navigable by road. The Pune Hyderabad stretch we had done many times at this point in time that we were very familiar with it, and we covered easily in roughly nine hours, in spite of a longish stop for lunch in the middle of the 590 km.

Now most of the people I know, even the ones who do drive to places further than Lonavla or Mumbai, could never imagine being out on the road, with two women and a small child, without rock solid reservations for all the stopovers. We however, knew that India has, finally, made enough progress that technology would solve the stopover accommodation issue for us. Driving into the city, and all the ones after that where we wished to stay over, we simply called the information service Justdial, a version of which is now available in most of the larger and some smaller Indian cities, and asked for phone numbers of hotels in Hyderabad. A large bunch of names and numbers soon arrived to both the laptop and the cellphone, and all it took was a couple of calls, and we were soon driving to our first night of well earned rest.

The next morning, bright and early, in keeping with our grand road trip plan of “leave early, take frequent breaks, and stop before it gets too dark”, we started the next leg of the journey after a quick but filling breakfast. This was a new stretch of road, a stretch we hadn’t done before, and the plan was to get to Vijaywada that day. On this stretch, we noticed other changes in the overall travel experience on Indian roads. Now tea and snacks by the roadside, in the dhabas and little hut-shops have never been a problem on any Indian highway. However, when we began our nomadic, independent, self driven style of travelling, actual meals were not really so easy to come by at the road side. We have had many misadventures in trying to find lunch on the road, ranging from super yummy but super small Tamilian “meals ready” places, to really awful shacks where we only ate because we had to, otherwise we would all have passed out from starvation! As for “facilities” that was a whole different adventure leading to a lot of familiarity with roadside hedges and farmlands! This trip, I realized that more Indians are on the road than they were even ten years ago, and as a direct result of that, fuel stations on the highways are now little islands of fun and convenience. There are parks for kiddies with fun things like swings, slides, and assorted other treats. There are little stores selling biscuits, chips, snacks and things. There are restaurants serving meals, as well as all hours of the day fast food. And, best news of all for the fastidious and the ladies, there are well maintained and clean restrooms.

As the trip progressed, as we went through city after city, and got on to the super highway, my daughter pointed out something we were all seeing but maybe not registering consciously. “Do you see how many private cars there are on the highway now?” and it is true. Where we had habitually been among a small minority of people travelling long distance in our own cars, most of the people we saw on the roads were in buses, shared semi public transport like Tata Sumos, and Tempo Trax, or just truckers. That was no longer the case. A lot of people were on the road in private cars, often self driven versus the “let’s get a professional driver for the long trip”. It seems to be an indication of not just the changing economic climate, but also of changing attitudes, especially among younger Indians for whom cars are no longer a new thing, Indians who have grown up riding in, and driving, their parents’ cars, and who can afford to buy their own cars at a much younger age than their parents could have even imagined in their lifetimes.

This trip showed us that Indians are definitely travelling a lot more, and not just by car. Whether for business or pleasure, the increased fluidity of the new Indian populations is a large part of why travel has become so much easier now. There are now really good hotels, at very decent prices, even in the much smaller cities, as we found in Berhampore, Odisha, for example. Where we had pretty traumatic experiences of quite horrific hotels even 10 yrs ago, in our many cross country jaunts, when trying to find a decent place to lay our heads, finding a comfortable, clean, and safe hotel, in almost any budget, is no longer a problematic issue when seeing the country by car. Roads overall, at least the important roads, are also better maintained, and the introduction of toll highways has made driving in India much smoother, and much more of a pleasure. Some stretches are even good enough now to do a 120 or 150 KMPH on, cutting down the time between stopovers significantly.  There are highway patrols, and helpline numbers visibly displayed on the fringes for the traveler, and, best thing of all, the help-lines actually work and help arrives quite promptly. In the same spirit of change, hotel employees are no longer surprised or shocked to have unannounced arrivals of an entire family disembarking from a car, looking for a room for the night.

All in all, things have really changed on the Indian highways. As a result of all these positive changes, we managed to drive into our own parking spot, in our own housing complex, early on the night of the 28th of December. With long lunches, more than 12-hour stops every night, and frequent bathroom breaks for the little one, we still managed to get from Pune, Maharashtra, across the widest part of India, taking the long way round detour via Hyderabad, to Kolkata, West Bengal, a distance of over two thousand and four hundred kilometers, in four days of driving! It would have taken twice as long even a decade ago.  

No comments:

Post a Comment