There I was, walking around the busy center of town in Ujire, India, sweating more than everyone else around me and clearly not looking or feeling like a local. But I was already used to that. I've been into town twice now and the strange stares and odd looks are practically expected. I've discovered that if you stop looking at everyone in the eyes, it's easy to forget that they're staring.
It was about twenty past four in the afternoon and I was headed back home; a remote farm nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats about 10 miles from town. I had two options for getting there: Wait for the bus and be crammed in with students headed home from school, or look for one of the jeeps and ride like a real local.
I noticed a bus arriving and waited to ask if it was headed to Kukavu (pronounced "kokow"), the name of the area about two miles from the farmhouse. The ticket attendant on the bus gave me a disgusted look and shooed me away.
As I walked toward the jeeps, a group of chatting drivers noticed me and asked where I was going. "Kukavu", I said several times before they pointed me to another group of jeeps. It seems that the locals get confused when someone who is obviously foreign speaks the name of a native town properly.
Approaching the second group of jeeps, another driver nods at me and asks, "Kokow?". I nod back and he points towards the back of a jeep where a few other people are already sitting. I climb in and wait. It's hot -- about ninety-five degrees -- and there's almost enough humidity in the air to squeeze water out of it with your bare hands.
There was a young man in the front passenger seat and two old ladies sitting beside me in the back. One of them started talking to me in Kannada, the local language in the state of Karnataka. I tried to explain that I only speak English, but she seemed to not understand and tried speaking to me in yet another language. I shook my head and smiled.
The jeeps are small and simple: two flat benches in the back facing each other and one long bench in the front for the driver and a few passengers. The jeeps are fairly loud, clunky, and outdated looking but they get the job done. (I later learned that even the new models resemble this.)
As I sat there waiting for the jeep to leave, I noticed an Indian girl and her two Muslim friends staring at me. The two Muslim girls were dressed in black burqa's with nothing more than their eyes showing. Meanwhile, three more people climb in the back of the jeep, a man and two women. A few minutes go by and then another women climbs in the back and two additional men get in the front.
There are now a total of five people sitting on the five-foot wide front seat and six people in the back.
Then, as the two Muslim girls and their Indian friend walk towards the jeep, the driver asks me and the other man sitting in the back to get out and sit in the front. I smile and nod understandingly, but the Indian man grumbles and says something under his breath as he climbs out.
When I reach the front of the jeep I see five faces staring back at me -- there was absolutely no room at all. The five people stretched from one side of the jeep to the other. And the driver hadn't even gotten in yet.
I tried to push my way in anyway and managed to get barely three inches of my bottom on the outside edge of the seat. I put my foot on the small foot step outside the jeep grab a handle near the windshield -- it seemed to be placed there specifically for situations like this. I placed my backpack on my lap in between my two arms and held on.
The driver climbed in and got about as far as I did: three inches of his body resting on the seat. Grabbing the steering wheel for support, he reached across three people to gain access the stick shift and pushed legs and feet out of the way to reach the pedals.
He drove carefully, just as you'd expect anyone hanging out of a jeep while simultaneously driving it to. There were now seven people crammed in the small five-foot wide front area and ten people stuffed in the back. Thankfully the ride only got more comfortable from that point on as people were dropped off and more room was made.
The jeep drivers are a happy and friendly bunch and they charge the same amount for the trip as the bus does (Rs.10, about 20 cents). They also leave more frequently than the buses, so it's easier to catch them.
Since having this first jeep experience, I have taken the jeeps several times. I'm beginning to actually look forward to taking them -- the ride is always interesting and not without it's challenges. Sure, it might be a little more precarious, but sharing that experience with everybody else, young and old, makes it entirely worth it.