Wanderu’s Site Lets You Research And Book Bus And Rail Travel

chicken busIf you’re a traveler, then you’re a Kayaker. Not a paddler, but a devotee of Kayak.com, the airline (and hotel and rental car) search engine that makes booking the lowest fares a breeze. If you’re a traveler, then you’ve also probably cursed the fact that a similar site doesn’t exist for bus and rail travel.

We can now count our blessings, thanks to Wanderu. According to Thrillist, this ingenious domestic search engine offers “hundreds of routes, operators, and schedules into a free, trip-aggregating database.” You can even make bookings, which is like a giant gift from the Travel Gods.

As soon as Wanderu or a competitor makes this info available for international travel, budget travelers won’t have anything left to complain about – except maybe the quality of their guesthouse banana pancakes.

[Photo credit: Flickr user DavidDennisPhotos.com]

How To Drive In India (And Not Die)

India‘s vast geography is a canvas for adventure, but such a big country invariably poses transportation difficulties. The solution to long distance travel in India has generally fallen under the purview of the country’s iconic railway network. In spite of delays and crowds, the train is the best way to see India.

Some might notice India’s ever-expanding road network and be tempted to hop behind the wheel. They might have visions of the open road, quaint towns and beautiful countryside, a trip unconstrained by bus or train schedules – a Kerouac experience for the yogic set.

I had similar thoughts before I entered India last year after driving there via Europe and the Middle East. I had seen the video of crazy Indian intersection below, and I naively assumed that type of scene would be rare. Then I spent two months driving from Amritsar to Kolkata covering almost 2,000 miles on back roads, high roads, trunk roads, city roads, mountain roads and paths that should be ashamed to call themselves roads. About 5% of the driving was sublime. The remainder was a grueling mental and physical test – less Kerouac, more “Mad Max.” I loved a lot of things about India, but driving was not one of them.

So my first piece of advice for driving in India: Don’t.

But if you’re the adventurous type, and you’re going to do it anyway, you need to know a couple things to survive that asphalt jungle. I lived to tell the tale, and I pass on this knowledge so that you don’t become one of the 140,000 people that are killed in road accidents in India every year.

With the type of chaos on display in the video below, it might be assumed that there are umpteen rules, unwritten and otherwise, that every driver strictly adheres to. In fact, there are only two:
Rule 1: Don’t Hit Anything.
Rule 2: Don’t Get Hit.

Straightforward, isn’t it? But as the Japanese say, the reverse side also has a reverse side. Beneath these simple precepts lie several conventions that are indeed unwritten, which allow for traffic to function normally. None of these practical guidelines bear any of the hallmarks of normal rules or laws, like standardization, adherence or enforcement. Consider them to be broad suggestions on how to not die on Indian roads.

Rule 1 is important because the last thing you want to do in India is crash into someone. While mob justice is rare, insurance and liability are a huge worry. Follow these four guidelines to ensure you don’t cause a diplomatic incident.

Praxis 1.1: Drivers only see what’s in front of them.
Indian drivers are forward-looking people in one very literal way. Under no circumstances should you assume that anyone will check their mirrors, if they have them. Drivers of cars and transport trucks alike will brake and swerve willy-nilly like a Camaro in a car chase. Anything behind their peripheral vision is not pertinent, and for all practical purposes, doesn’t exist. If you cream someone who swerves into your lane at the last minute, that’s your fault, bucko.

Corollary 1.1.1: All mirrors are vanity mirrors.
Corollary 1.1.2: Whoever is behind, even by an inch, is always at fault in a crash.
Corollary 1.1.3: Don’t assume that vehicles have the same safety features as yours, like mirrors, airbags or working brakes.

Praxis 1.2: Be ready to brake.
On the road in India, remember the Boy Scout motto. Never assume that a gap in front of you will stay clear, or that there won’t be an impromptu cricket match after a blind turn on a mountain road. Be prepared. As I was driving on the four-lane divided highway from Agra to Varanasi, I rounded a long bend to find two extremely drowsy cows blocking both lanes. I hauled the car down from 70 mph to 0 with inches to spare. The cows were unperturbed by my horn and I had to slowly creep forward until a light kiss from my bull bars made them get up and move, like a couple of unimpressed teenagers.

Corollary 1.2.1: Animals are everywhere.
Corollary 1.2.2: You can get 7 years in prison for killing a cow.

Praxis 1.3: Use your horn at all times.
Timid foreigners driving in India are at first reticent to use the horn, which back home is deployed only in extreme cases of grievance or impending danger. Since every minute on the road in India is an extreme case of grievance or impending danger, it’s imperative to use the horn liberally and confidently. In addition to establishing dominance, you’ll learn a horn has many other uses, among them relieving boredom, filling awkward silences, breaking up cricket matches and waking cows.

Corollary 1.3.1: The louder the horn, the more important you are. Bonus if it plays a melody.
Corollary 1.3.2: False flag operations, where tiny hatchbacks use foghorns to part traffic, are not unheard of.

Praxis 1.4: Don’t drive at night.
Driving at night is almost a surefire way to hit someone. Until the sun has been well and truly down for several hours, nobody turns on their lights. Then every driver flips on their high beams, utterly blinding oncoming traffic. Humans and other animals are sadly not luminescent, but pedestrians and cows don’t distinguish between night and day when it comes to walking patterns. Just as pedestrians seem to have little sense of the speed of an oncoming vehicle, they also don’t seem to realize they are virtually invisible at night.

Rule 2 is just as important and subtle in its observance. Remember every parent’s pathetically thin defense when faced with lending their car to their teenager? “We’re not worried about you, honey, we’re worried about other drivers.” Were the kids raised in India, this excuse would hold a lot more water.

Avoiding getting hit is less about following any laws, and more of an art or a craft – an instinct, if you will – for avoiding vehicular tragedy. Fortunately, it’s an instinct that can be developed with experience.

Praxis 2.1: Small vehicles make way for large vehicles (Might Makes Right).
Philosophers and historians agree: when Thrasymachus contended that justice remains the domain of the strongest in “The Republic,” he was auguring modern traffic dynamics on the subcontinent. Drivers these days have adopted this ancient maxim. More practically put, that 10-ton truck is going to merge into your lane whether you like it or not.

One night I was inching forward on a jammed two-lane artery road into Haridwar. Several bus drivers who were sick of waiting in our lane simply turned on their musical horns (C1.3.1) and maneuvered into oncoming traffic, high beams flashing. Traffic coming from the other direction parted like a zipper, some vehicles veering into our lane, displacing smaller cars and motorbikes, others nose-diving into the ditch on the other side and bouncing along on their merry way. Point is: move, unless you want to argue the finer points of justice with ol’ Thrasy in the afterlife.

Corollary 2.1.1: Position yourself next to a smaller vehicle for an escape route.
Corollary 2.1.2: Upon a meeting of vehicles of equivalent size, inch forward until one driver yields.

Praxis 2.2: Signage isn’t relevant.
Speed limit? That’s when your car can’t go any faster. Stop sign? Invisibly located behind a tree. Red light? Shmed light. Don’t get hung up on the details like lane markings or “one-way” streets. These are merely road decorations. If you attempt to stop at a red light when everyone is flying through at 40 mph, things will end poorly.

Corollary 2.2.1: Go with the flow.
Corollary 2.2.2: For every sign restricting the weight of a vehicle there will be a smaller vehicle carrying a load as heavy or heavier than the restricted vehicle.

Praxis 2.3: Chill out.
Indian roads are not the place to freak out on somebody. If you get all road rage-y on someone who cuts you off, you’re going to get bashed up.

Here’s an example of how it can go wrong: I was driving into Agra, and vehicles were five abreast on a two-lane road. A little rickshaw hauling about eight people appeared out of a gap beside me and started to worm in between my car and to the left-front of me. Indignant, I moved slightly forward to cut him off (C2.1.2). He squeezed; I inched. Then he gunned his little motor and plowed through, ripping off my front bumper. He stopped and him and all eight of his passengers stared at me. The moment when my mouth was agape, registering my shock, was all the leeway the driver needed. He gave me a little head waggle as if to say, “No hard feelings,” and then lane-split his way down the road.

Another example: at a tollbooth in the country outside of Kolkata, three young men piled into my car. They wanted a ride into the city. At first I protested: my car, in spite of its appearance, was woefully underpowered and the shocks were gone. They simply smiled and wouldn’t leave. I relented. They turned out to be friendly, and I didn’t have to pay any tolls all the way to Kolkata. Also, one of them gave me a samosa.

Point is, if you stick to any principle you have about driving, you will suffer for it. As with all irritants in India, the solution is to take the long view.

Corollary 2.3.1: Every gap is navigable if your vehicle is small enough.
Corollary 2.3.2: Personal space on the road is as abundant as personal space in a crowded Delhi metro car.
Corollary 2.3.3: An accident in India is going to hurt a lot more people than just the driver.
Corollary 2.3.4: All vehicles are pack animals, designed to be worked until their last gasping breath.

Final Advice
If none of this has put you off from driving in India, then you are certainly cut out for it. It is actually sometimes very much worth it. The scenery off the beaten path, especially in the northern mountains, is unparalleled and difficult to access without your own vehicle or a personal tour guide. The apprehensive might parcel out their fate to a local driver who navigates Indian roads on a daily basis, but the thrill-seekers will see to their journey themselves. Just be aware that if you do tackle India like this, you’ll need a vacation when you get back.

N.B. If you are riding a motorcycle, all bets are off.

[Photo Credits: lead photo Bernard-SD; all others Adam Hodge]

Budget Hong Kong: Coward’s Route To Victoria Peak

The tram to the statue of Christ the Redeemer. The elevators to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The Santorini cable car. Any ski lift, anywhere.

They’re memorable travel experiences, sure. But they’re also experiences that strike anxiety into the hearts of heights-fearing travelers, like myself.

So when faced with the prospect of a thrill-inducing funicular railway ride to the top of Hong Kong’s famous Victoria Peak, I decided to take a pass. Though the Hong Kong Peak Tram hasn’t suffered any fatal accidents in its 124 years of operation, I wasn’t ready to take any chances if I didn’t have to. Plus, the bus was cheaper.The Hong Kong Peak Tram connects the city center with the famous Victoria Peak overlook, which offers stunning views of Victoria Harbour, Central, Lamma Island and the surrounding islands, as well as an over-commercialized shopping and dining complex. The historic railway has been in operation since 1888, making it one of the oldest of its kind. The original tram was made from varnished timber and operated by coal-fired steam boilers, but in the 1920s, the boilers were replaced with an electrically powered system. The current microprocessor-controlled electric drive system was installed in 1989.

While the Peak Tram’s history is impressive indeed, it couldn’t make up for the thought of riding up a mountain in a rickety old cable car. Instead, I opted for the slightly more boring but much cheaper bus.

The double-decker CityBus 15 departs every 15 minutes from Exchange Square in Hong Kong’s Central District, right by the Central Ferry Piers. The fare is HK$9.80 (US$1.25) each way – about a third the price of the HK$28 one-way tram ticket – and the ride takes about a hour, depending on traffic. It also offers a unique look at residential life on the Peak, which is home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

After a winding ride up the mountain, I was deposited at the Victoria Peak complex and met with a thick bed of fog that blanketed the entire city in white. Turns out, there was no need to be so afraid of heights.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

‘Chicken Buses’ Add Color To Guatemala (GALLERY)

When weathered school buses are retired from commission in the United States, they don’t always end up being scrapped: many times, they find a new life (and a new paint job) in Guatemala and other Central American countries. Known to English speakers as “chicken buses,” because of the likelihood travelers might find themselves sitting next to livestock, these buses can be found throughout the country and are often filled to the brim with locals, budget travelers and goods.

Across the world, many modes of transport seem unique to those of us using them for the first time – and these buses are no exception. An excursion in one of these vehicles can be chalked up to an amusement park ride, complete with drivers racing around curves at seemingly impossible speeds. The inside is as animated as the wild colors painted on the exterior, with people entering from both the front and back doors and vendors hopping on to try and sell ice cream, plantain chips and other goodies. Benches intended for two schoolchildren are crammed with three (or more) people, with others standing in the aisles and sometimes even riding on the roof.

Most entertaining, however, is the bus driver’s right-hand man, the ayudante. This helper keeps track of all the bodies on the bus, ensuring everyone pays a proper fare, organizing suitcases, and calling out the names of stops to people on the roadside. Keep a close eye on this guy, as he often finds the most opportune moments – such as when a bus is tearing around a harsh curve – to climb out the bus window and onto the top of the bus to secure packages.

To check out more of these richly decorated buses and the culture that surrounds them, click through the gallery below.

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[Photo by Libby Zay]

Kiwi Cool: Saving Money While Traveling In New Zealand

Saving money in New Zealand - supermarket lamb
Last month, I spent three weeks traveling through New Zealand, focusing mainly on the cities and culture. After living in Istanbul for two years, it wasn’t the culture shock, the jet lag, or the seasonal switch that was hard to adjust to, it was the prices. While I knew New Zealand wasn’t cheap (though their dollar is slightly weaker than ours), I was unprepared for the sticker shock. Dinner and drinks can easily run $50 a head or more, city buses can cost more than a NYC subway ride, and $3.50 for a bottle of water seemed offensive. I did discover a few ways to save money and still enjoy the Kiwi cool.

1. Drink locally, eat globally – New Zealand is known for its excellent wines, and starting to get accolades for their craft beer as well. Whether you’re dining out or picking up a bottle in a supermarket, it’s hard to go wrong with anything made in New Zealand; even the cheapest glass of house “Sav” is likely to be pretty tasty. Also note that many pubs are likely to be “tied” houses (unlike the excellent Free House in Nelson, pictured in my first “Kiwi cool” post) and will carry a limited range of brands, giving you an incentive to stick to the “house” tap. In contrast, for cheap eats, look for foods with origins outside the country; Asian cuisine like sushi, Chinese noodles, and Indian curries are often the most budget-friendly options and given the country’s ethnic mix, just as authentic Kiwi as roast leg of lamb and Pavlova.

2. Rent a car – This is one area where I didn’t follow my own advice, preferring to explore the country on public transportation as my husband is the only driver in the family and my baby is not a fan of car rides (yet she’s perfect on planes). Generally, public transportation in New Zealand is not cheap – a day pass for the Auckland bus system is over $10, taxis from the airport can cost up to $100, and the cost of two bus or train tickets between cities often exceeds the daily rate for a budget rental car. Kiwi companies Jucy and Apex offer older model cars as low as $22 – 34 per day, if you don’t mind a less than sweet ride.

3. Book transportation online – If you do choose to go the public transportation route, it can pay to make your arrangements online rather than in person. By booking tickets for the Waiheke Island ferry online, I saved $7 on each adult fare, even for a same day ticket. As part of the promotion for the new Northern Explorer Auckland-Wellington train, Kiwi Rail was offering two-for-one tickets, check their website for current promotions.

4. Check out motels – In my European travels, I’ve been using AirBnB and other apartment sites to book accommodations, as it pays to have extra space, laundry and a kitchen when you are traveling with a baby. The AirBnB craze hasn’t quite hit New Zealand yet, though you may find luck with BookABach (a bach is a Kiwi word for a vacation home that might be more basic than a typical house). I was more surprised by the quality of motels and motor lodges in New Zealand, they are often modern in style and comfortably outfitted with nice amenities like heated towel racks, electric blankets, and real milk for your coffee standard (a small pleasure compared to the powdered creamer typical in most hotel rooms). Motel rooms range from modest studios to sprawling apartments with jacuzzis. I found a useful directory of accommodations on NewZealand.com, and you can filter for features such as laundry or pool and check for special deals. Golden Chain is a quality collection of independent motels spread over both islands.

5. Create your own Wi-Fi hotspot – Another surprise I found in New Zealand is the lack of free Wi-Fi. Even many coffee shops only offer Internet for a fee, and some accommodations will limit your free connection to 100 mb or so per day. The city of Wellington has set up free hotspots in the city center, but I found the signal hit or miss. A more reliable and affordable option is to make your own hotspot by purchasing a pre-paid SIM card with data. Consult this helpful wiki for rates; I bought a SIM through 2degrees with 1 GB of data for about $20. One other tip is to find the local iSite tourism office for a short period of Wi-Fi access if you need to check email or make travel plans (they can help with booking travel and accommodation too, of course).

6. Shop vintage – After a few days in Kiwi Land, you’ll feel an urge to buy lots of nice merino wool clothing and gifts. For a country with apparently more sheep than people, it is everywhere and you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on new sweaters. Another option is to try vintage and thrift shops. I found a lovely baby sweater probably knitted by a nice Kiwi grandmother for $8 in an antique store, just as quality as the $30 one I bought at a market, and both far cheaper than most retail shops. Auckland’s K Road and Wellington’s Newtown have lots of used and “opportunity” shops, often with proceeds going to charity. Eco-friendly fashion is also becoming more widespread, and “recycled” fashion shops can be found in most cities.

7. Stay in on public holidays – One upside to the high cost of a pint of beer is that tipping is unnecessary in New Zealand; the GST tax on goods includes service. However, you will note on many restaurant menus a surcharge for public holidays of 15%. This covers the owner’s cost of paying their employees more for the holidays. Try to avoid dining out on holidays or look at it as a special holiday gratuity.

A bonus tip that may or may not be relevant in the future: follow the rugby fan trail. Started for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 to ease traffic congestion and crowding on public transport, Auckland’s Fan Trail was revived for a match against Australia last month. The trail stretches two miles from downtown to the stadium and is lined with entertainment, food and drinks, and other activities, most of which are free. Even if you aren’t headed to a game, it’s fun to watch both the performers and the fans dressed up to cheer on their team. If you happen to be in Auckland during a future big rugby match, find out if the city plans to run the fan trail again.

Stay tuned for more “Kiwi Cool: New Zealand for the Un-adventurous.”