Monday, June 30, 2008

Down to Earth

Recently, I decided to travel Bangalore to Pune by bus and came away pleasantly surprised. Couple of reasons prompted this "daring" step, now that we are so used to flying. One reason is definitely the rising fuel costs that have made air travel so expensive. A no-frills plane journey that cost Rs.2000 all incl about 18 months ago, now costs upwards of Rs.4000. Secondly, there was fear of the new Bangalore airport that has effectively quarantined the city. The time and taxi cost to reach the airport is not for the faint-hearted.

The first surprise was the ability to painlessly book tickets on the Volvo service (called 'Airavatha') at the Karnataka State Road Transport website. I could get availability and schedules, pay by credit card and even view seat-map. The bus leaves from platform#1 at Majestic bus stand, where the destination boards make it easy to find the bus. The staff was also quite civil and the bus-stand was less chaotic than most airports today. The next surprise was that, unlike private buses, the KSRTC Volvo left sharp on time.

Facilities offered were a blanket, 500ml water bottle and a fairly well-made in-bus magazine! They did tantalize you with 5 minutes of two new hindi movies before abruptly replacing the DVD with a grating Rajkumar movie from the 1970s. This part, though disappointing, was kind of expected in these times of regional chauvinism. Dinner was at an acceptable Kamat's rest-stop at 7:30pm after which we travelled uninterrupted till 6:30AM the next day. Temperature in the cabin was OK and except for the honk-happy driver, it was a comfortable night journey. 18 hours after I left home, I sat with my parents sipping tea in Pune. All this for a princely sum of Rs.820 ticket, plus Rs.50 dinner and Rs.200 auto-rickshaw charges. That is approx what I would spend on just the taxi to reach new BIAL airport!!

On the way back, I had already booked a flight. Traveling light and in the mood to experiment, I took the shuttle from BIAL to JP Nagar instead of a taxi. This is available after you pass all the taxi guys soliciting you at the exit, so it is easy to miss unless you lookfor it. The bus bay is on the far right, towards the parking lot. The bus is an excellent cheap option (Rs.80 non-AC and Rs.150 AC) that leaves every 30 minutes. There are some 8 or 9 routes and newbies can consult large route-maps on the platform itself, to see which bus drops them off nearest to hotel/home. See schedule online or book buses at These special buses have luggage racks, helpful, polite conductors and good frequency, making this experience worth repeating.

On the flip side, it still takes a good 2 hours, same as a taxi ride, and is more exhausting and dizzying than the 15 hour bus-ride to Pune. Plus you spend three times the money, one hour in air and total of 9 hours door-to-door. BIAL has given us Bangaloreans a royal buggering-- just to see the baggage-claim belt start rolling was a 30 minutes wait! Not to mention the fact that the toilets are stinky, wet and cramped while for some reason you can only buy 500ml water at 20 bucks. Why cannot they sell the standard 1 litre bottle for Rs.12, like everywhere else? Does "international quality" translate as "squeezing the helpless passenger at every stage" in your dictionary, Mr. Brunner?

Nevertheless, it was heartening to see the small steps we have taken in ensuring passenger comfort and connectivity, even as we suffer some large mis-steps in the lopsided infrastructure game. In the era of rising inflation, it was good to see that low-cost options such as buses and trains are much better now than they were in the late 90s.