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Tuesday 22 Mar 2011
Guwahati, India

Police bribery & Learning the Indian Rules of the Road

The day began with a bribe. In order to get down to the main road, 1km away, to get my bus back to Guwahati I had to pay one of the hotel drivers 40 Rs (just under a euro ... a lot of money in India) to take me there! It was bizarre that the hotel wouldn't facilitate this, but the guy at reception pretended to not speak English, so wasn't much help.

The morning bus eventually arrived along the main road at around 7am and a seat was waiting for me. Again I was thankful I had reserved a seat as the entire bus was otherwise full, so probably wouldn't have stopped for me if I had tried to wave it down. It was once again a tourist bus (with an aisle that DIDN'T have seats down the middle) and a kind gent swapped seats with me so that I got the centre seat in the back row and was able to stretch out my legs. Of course the back seat also meant I got the worst of the suspension, and I felt car-sick for a lot of the bumpy ride back to Guwahati.

It was a long, hot, dusty trip back. 6-8 hours. The traffic around Guwahati was quite mental as the road-works were never-ending. Deisel fumes filled the air and I was getting a considerable headache. As soon as I arrived at the bus station I booked a seat on the next bus to Shillong (from where, I guessed, you got a taxi the rest of the way to Cherrapunjee).

Bus arrived an hour late at 3pm instead of 2pm. I boarded to take my seat, lugging my huge backpack onto the tiny chicken bus as there was no luggage storage in the hold, or above my head, resorting to blocking the aisle in the process. My knees were crushed in the tiny seat (no reclining for the guy in front I could tell ya!). After getting away with comfortable buses for my trip to/from Kaziranga, I was now going to get a taste of a REAL Indian bus.

100s of people (of all ethnicities) crammed on board and chaos ensued when suddenly the betelnut-chewing attendant (red juices dripping out of his salivating gob) muttered incomprehensible gargle to me and gestured for me to put the bag at the back (or something). I stayed put as I'd no idea what he was saying and he wandered off, crowd-surfing over the crushed queue of people in the aisle. I had my valid seat after all and didn't have anything to worry about. "If my bag was an issue, then it was their fault for not having luggage storage", I asserted. Time wore on and the crush reached epic proportions with people tripping over my backpack in the aisle. The majority looked Vietnamese and I felt like I was back in South East Asia. A new bus boy gestured to me to come up to the front. Not likely as I couldn't move, let alone drag my bag through the packed aisle. So he came down and in broken English said that the bus ISN'T going to Shillong! WTF! I was confused as I had a ticket for this very bus! Squeezing my way off the bus, I got someone who spoke English to translate. It transpired that the bus WAS going to Shillong, but that it was full. The stupid guy at the ticket desk sold me a seat that was already booked! Yell The bus boy did the honest thing, though, and gave me back the 110 Rs after I showed him my ticket.

So, 3 hours wasted for nothing. Now I had to decide: do I go book another bus or try to get a taxi (spending 40 times more). I had one look at the 12 year old manning the ticket desk for Shillong and thought "Taxi". It was at this point that a rather "friendly" 60-something police seargent approached, on the pretext of warning me about pickpockets, but soon offered to help me sort a taxi. I thought to myself "the police in the North East are a very helpful bunch indeed". He allowed me to sit in the private cooled police box, and within the hour returned with a little shifty taxi driver in tow.

"2,500 Rs to Shillong", the cop said (about 40 euro). At this point I was too tired to haggle, and the idea of a (relatively) spacious taxi trip for 4 hours instead of one of those buses appealed to me greatly. I handed the 2,500 Rs to the cop, who swiveled around, and handed "all the cash" to the taxi driver. Once we were off I got chatting to the taxi driver who reliably informed me that the official fee for the trip was 2,000 Rs. The 500 Rs was for "police commission". A bribe by any other word. No wonder he was so willing to help!

In time I came to be very glad that I didn't get the bus, as I probably would have expired. Guwahati is a dust-hole and I was covered in sweaty muck in no time, plus the car exhaust fumes were giving me a migraine. As it stood, the taxi was a trip from hell, so I can only imagine what the bus would have been like. The chain-smoking, coffee-guzzling lunatic at the wheel spoke about 2 words of English, but was able to give me a crash course in the Rules of the Road of India in no time:

- Wing mirrors are designed to be tucked in/removed so that you can squeeze between two huge trucks (that similarly have no wing mirrors and so have no idea you are trying to pass them ... that's what the horn is for). When moving into another lane, you just move in unless beeped to stop!

- Seat belts (where present) are merely annoyances, and rarely have a buckle to clip into anyway

- The main rule is that "this is your road" and all others are simply in the way and you should merrily drive down the centre of a two lane road until beeped to move out of the way. Driving the wrong direction on a one-way road is perfectly justified at all times (as long as you beep continuously).

- No matter how much time you have to get to your destination, always drive like you are 10 minutes late! This means taking sharp corners in pitch darkness at full speed.

- Floodlights should always remain on, especially when you are behind someone (if you succeed in blinding them, this is a bonus)

- Beeping is the preferred way of letting other (otherwise blind) drivers know that you are coming round a corner, or overtaking (remember they don't use their mirrors, so why should you?)

Truly, the Indian driving experience is the most exhausting in the world (and that's not just from the headache-inducing fumes), yet also the most skillful. The fact that I didn't see a single rickshaw/taxi crash in my entire trip is quite astonishing. I did see a good few large trucks toppled over on our trip up to Shillong though...

One pidgen-English conversation later, and I managed to get the driver to take me on all the way to Cherrapunjee for an extra 1,500 (although over the next 3 hours he would try to press me to make it 2,000. I wasn't budging).

The agonising high-speed trip through the pitch dark windy mountain roads was making me wish for death. It was such an ordeal to get to Cherrapunjee I sincerely hoped that it would be worth it...

Somehow, after 14 hours of riding buses and mad taxis, we finally arrived at the Cherrapunjee resort, ALIVE. As if to drive me insane, there were a bunch of noisy Indian brats running riot in the central room of the main building. My migraine wasn't coping very well, but I kept my cool. Before he left I gave the driver an extra 200 tip as he was almost sobbing for it.

The proprietor of the Cherapunjee Holiday Eco Resort was a lovely man named Dennis. He is highly intelligent and extremely hospitable and game me hot soup before leading me to my lovely room where I had a shower and about 1kg of muck came off me from the day's dust and fumes.

I slept very well that night despite the heavy rain (Cherrapunjee is also famous as the "Wettest place on Earth")

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