sic transit gloria indi: Railways, Highways and Low Ways in Rwanda and India

Posted: June 18, 2011 in Opinion

Negotiating public transport can be sticky in any country, especially those where there are no destination signs on the buses at all, let alone in the Roman alphabet.

Windowless wonder

Natural aircon for the environmentally conscious

In India the excellent and extensive railway network is far reaching and well stocked with chai, veg biryani and cold, cold water. However, the mission to purchase tickets takes longer than an overnight sleeper train, the only difference being you can’t sleep in the queue. At least there is a far reaching railway with a firmly established infrastructure employing millions of officials (and seemingly chai wallahs) whereas Rwanda, being the land of a thousand hills, is unlikely to have any form of railway soon and is unecessary for a country the size of Wales with a fairly decent road system, depending on the season of course.
As a volunteer and a carless one at that, I always had to hop on a taxibus, a ramshackle Nissan or Toyota minivan, packed with locals, livestock and a cocky conductor with a fistful of neatly folded Francs. No signs- just a random shout of a destination, getting bundled in and then negotiating the price with the conductor. I used to do this in the local language to get a “discount” and to let them know that sinavutse ejo (I wasn’t born yesterday). It still took a good 5 minutes to get to the “untaxed” price, which was small potatoes on the one and a half hour journey into the capital city.
Trying to book transport in India is most of the battle, especially during the school holidays where most of the country is shifting to somewhere else. There are many options but I always go through the same routine. Firstly, I check the internet for train availability. In the unlikely event that there are trains available in a class that I want on the day that I need to travel, I find that there is a problem using my foreign credit card. If I desperately want to get a train I have to go through an agent, who usually charges anywhere between 50-700 rupees commission to purchase tatkal (last minute) tickets which usually incur a further 200 rupee surcharge. Once I have the train tickets in hand then the Indian railways are extremely well organised and efficient. The air-conditioned sleeper carriages are cool enough to not sweat in (a boon on a 41 hour journey up country) and the berths are private enough to sleep, read or snore in. The range, value and regularity of food provision also kept a man of my appetites happy for the long and languorous journey.
If a rail ticket was tantalisingly out of my grasp, an easier option was the overnight airconditioned semi-sleeper bus. The tickets are easily booked online without interference by unscrupulous agents and the buses are comfy and quiet. The only disadvantage is the lack of toilets but somehow my body has trained itself to wait until the midway rest stop where you only have 5 minutes to do all that is necessary before heading back on board and hopefully getting some sleep.
The third option is only in case of emergencies or short journeys, where it was necessary to jump on a bus without aircon, or indeed windows or doors. The signs on these buses are all written in the local language with occasionally a few pointers in letters I could read. Thankfully the locals were only too happy to point us in mostly the right direction as long as I pronounced the place names correctly. On board, the conductor would come to my seat, if I were lucky enough to beat the crowd to get one, and issue me with a fixed price ticket- no haggling or recourse to his mother tongue. Then, as in Rwanda, it was a stop-start-stop journey where 30 km can take 4 hours and a change of bus is usually necessary every 40 minutes. Despite the lack of privacy, the camaraderie was enjoyable and I struck up a few conversations with men in kurtas (cloth wrap skirts), one even showing me pictures of gods and godesses on his mobile phone.
For a country as populous and massive as India, the public transport system functions and functions very well- once you get a ticket. Fixed prices and lots of ancilliary services make travelling across India easier than it should be. In Rwanda, things are chainging with prepaid taxibus stalls selling tickets before the journey. With a population of 8 million, most of whom stay within the rugo (home compound), you really don’t need much more than that other than regular pothole repair and friendly conductors.

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