Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws: A Journey through Modern India

Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws: A Journey through Modern India

by Laura Pedersen


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A travel essay of a recent visit to India, which reveals, with humor and insight, the tensions and contradictions facing the emerging world power. In particular, the book explores the roles of women and children in India today and includes discussions with experts on this topic, providing insight into this important and often neglected issue.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555916183
Publisher: Fulcrum Publishing
Publication date: 05/29/2012
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Laura Pedersen has written for the New York Times and is the author of Play Money, Going Away Party, Beginner's Luck (chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection), Buffalo Gal, and Buffalo Unbound. In 1994, President Clinton honored her as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans. She has appeared on Oprah, Good Morning America, Primetime Live, and The Late Show with David Letterman, and she writes for several well-known comedians. Pedersen lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws

A Journey through Modern India

By Laura Pedersen

Fulcrum Publishing

Copyright © 2012 Laura Pedersen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55591-754-8


Bewildered, Bothered, and Bewitched

My introduction to India came through that bedrock of American recreation during the latter half of the twentieth century, the television. Specifically, the 1960s sitcom. Bewitched starred the stunning, nose-twitching actress Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens, a good witch who decided to forego her magical powers (most of the time) in order to achieve the 1960s version of the female American Dream as an average suburban housewife. However, when otherworldly symptoms arose, more often than not caused by the bumbling Aunt Clara and her spells gone bad, it was necessary to call on the family witch doctor, Dr. Bombay. Thereby my first association with all things India at the impressionable age of five was in the form of Welsh-born character actor Bernard Fox, appearing out of thin air dressed in outlandish costumes, surrounded by a coterie of sexy nurses, cracking corny jokes, and providing questionable cures.

India next appeared when I started kindergarten, in 1970. There weren't any students who hailed from the subcontinent in my Western New York elementary school, but American Indians were going from being called Indians to Native Americans, except by actual Native Americans who, by and large, preferred being called Indians. So when someone said the word Indian, kids often asked, "Dot or feather?" This was just before political correctness came into being (Need any Helen Keller jokes?).

However, such nomenclature confusion existed for good reason. Indian was the name Christopher Columbus (the Italian who got funding from Spain to discover a country that would be taken over by England, only to gain independence with help from France) gave the people he found in the New World, believing he'd arrived in the Indies, which was the medieval name for Asia. To further befuddle things, islands in the Caribbean Sea came to be called the West Indies when it turned out they weren't the Indies of the East. And, just for fun, the islands known as the Lesser Antilles are located in the eastern West Indies.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, people regularly headed off to play bingo at the Seneca Indian Reservation or the neighborhood Catholic church, despite the Corinthians 1:36 edict against ill-gotten gains. The Seneca Reservation had the advantage of tax-free gas and cigarettes, while the church offered nonalcoholic refreshments and guilt. In the 1980s and '90s, American Indian tribes around the country were busy expanding their gambling enterprises by building actual casinos with hotels and stage shows. Meantime, India Indians in America were taking over 7-Elevens, Carvel stores, and roadside motels at a rate that provided a gold mine of material for stand-up comics — the likes of which wouldn't be seen again until Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot his hunting partner in the face and Osama Bin Laden was found to have more pornography than Times Square in the 1970s.

Technology began booming in the 1980s and the subcontinent soon became known for operating call centers, where your service inquiries would be routed, especially for operational issues, such as whether your CD — ROM drive could interchangeably hold a disc or a coffee cup (Answer: no). As a result, by the time I arrived on Wall Street and the word Indian came up, colleagues asked, "Computer or casino?" Political correctness was late in hitting the stock exchange, as evidenced by the weekly bimbo contests in which traders competed to see how many scantily clad women could be lured to the tradinng floor for "free tours" tha ended on a balcony with a Plexiglas barrier that transformed pantygazing from a sport into a vocation for hundreds of male employees.

I'd wanted to travel to India for many years but feared that the poverty and misogyny would be too disquieting. I had read articles about children purposely maimed to beg more efficiently and wives cast out of their husband's homes after mysterious cooking accidents and forced to live on the streets scarred and deformed, if they survived at all. Meantime, the stories went on, if a woman's husband happened to die, she suddenly found herself in terrible circumstances. And women in bad marriages regularly resorted to suicide rather than apply for divorce because of the social stigma. Having been raised as a Unitarian Universalist during the 1970s, when the opportunities for women in this country were still largely limited to housewife, teacher, nurse, or Miss America, I spent many weekends marching to support equal rights for women while my dad enjoyed pointing out that our local feminist collective bookstore contained no humor section. So I secretly worried that upon entering the country I'd have flashbacks complete with a Helen Reddy soundtrack, dash into the first Indian women and children's advocacy group I came across, and devote the rest of my days to folding pamphlets, building birthing centers, and promoting the serious business of change.

However, by the start of the new millenium, surveys were confirming that the recent success of the Indian economy was partly due to the fact that women had finally been given the freedom to fully participate in this surging democracy. Their contributions, from piecemeal worker all the way up to president, were a substantial component in powering an economic engine with a 9 percent growth rate and the potential to lift millions out of poverty. When women were no longer discriminated against or treated as encumbrances, but given opportunity, they quickly became society's biggest assets. This was something worth seeing.

Another factor that had been holding me back was that the land of swamis, meditation, yoga, toe rings, and walking barefoot on fire was also renowned for mob violence. When two Sikh bodyguards gunned down prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, more than three thousand citizens were killed during the frenzied days that followed. In 2002, a train fire that killed fifty-eight passengers, mostly Hindu pilgrims, was blamed on Muslims, and more than two thousand died in the riotous aftermath; people were burned alive, women and young girls were raped while government officials looked the other way, and two hundred thousand Muslims were driven from their homes. On a lesser but still worrisome note, when a popular 1980s Indian television serialization of the religious epic Ramayana came to an end, viewers took to the streets with bricks and bottle rockets in a region that was home to some particularly dedicated and hotheaded audience members. Would the safety-conscious traveler need also to carry a TV guide?

Lastly, when it came to corndog-fed foreigners, the food and water in India had a reputation for being a dysentery delivery system that resulted in what we called the crabapple two-step back home in Western New York.

Obviously the United States has its fair share of problems, but at least here I could vote, protest, and volunteer and thereby feel that I'm at least attempting to make some small contribution to improving my corner of the world. In India, I'd be nothing more than a helpless observer.

However, by 2010 I wasn't getting any younger. I'd survived disco, Afros, Pintos, Jaws, Odd job, atomic wedgies, rainbow wedgies, and Watergate. I went to school back when trophies were handed out for winning, not participation. I was on my sixth dog, to be exact, and reports from the subcontinent suggested that things were changing for the better. Furthermore, India was one of the few countries in that part of the world where citizens didn't hate the United States like it was a job they were getting paid to perform. After trips to Greece, Russia, and Egypt, I was tired of pretending to be Canadian, which entailed keeping up with hockey scores and memorizing recipes for making peameal back bacon.

My divorced parents, after having both lost their spouses within the space of fourteen months, seemed to be getting back on track as best they could. At least they appeared healthy — Mom solicited actual doctors' opinions, and you just sort of eyeballed Dad to make sure he was getting his daily allowance of coffee, cigarettes, Corona, and pastrami, since he's a man at two with nature. As an only child, it occurred to me that some energetic younger brothers and sisters might come in handy, especially since Mom and Dad were living two thousand miles apart. Unfortunately, when you advertise for siblings on Craigslist at this age and stage, consumers are more interested in your potential as an organ donor than as a big sister.


Eastward Ho!

Two days after buying my ticket on the state-owned Air India, direct from New York to New Delhi, the airline experienced a horrible crash that killed 158 people. A plane coming from Dubai overshot a runway in southern India, hurtled into a ravine, and exploded. My travel agent e-mailed: But that was their first accident in ten years — Freakonomics would tell us that the odds say you are safer on them after an accident because they are not "due" for another ten years!! Or you now prefer I explore connecting options?

Her logic was compelling — until you factored in that the cause of the crash was poor pilot training and tricky landing facilities. But the meandering cloud of volcanic ash tap-dancing its way across Europe like crickets on a hot stove still made a direct flight preferable, so I threw caution to the wind the way one does when climbing aboard Coney Island's rackety Cyclone roller coaster. Air India it was. The key to a brilliant vacation is finding adventure and possibility in the face of disaster and tragedy. And a prescription for Ambien.

By catching a cab from Manhattan to JFK Airport, in Queens, you already feel that you're halfway to Southeast Asia, since most drivers in Manhattan hail from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, and they jabber away in their singsong native tongues on hands-free cell phones while attempting to break the taxi land speed record. These phone calls entail multiple listeners, so a driver can apparently have his entire extended family of six hundred on the line at once to discuss who's bringing the rasam masala to the Friday night mosque social. The constantly under construction JFK Airport, with its outdated facilities, poor signage, sickly fluorescent lighting, and flock of live-in birds, operates much like a developing country, so this furthers a smooth transition.

I arrived at the airport just twenty-four hours after fed-up flight attendant Steven Slater performed a spectacular "take this job and shove it" on the JFK tarmac subsequent to being cursed out by a defiant passenger. He grabbed a couple beers, disembarked on the inflatable emergency evacuation slide with one in each hand, dashed to the employee parking lot, and headed home, where he was promptly arrested for reckless endangerment and criminal mischief. The Washington Post dubbed it "pulling a Slater," perhaps to suggest a nonviolent version of "going postal." I felt everyone's pain — passengers, pilots, and flight attendants alike. The tarmac at JFK is an enormous parking lot where one spends mind-numbing hours waiting to take off amidst the sound of jackhammers and strange smells that, best I can tell, involve past-its-prime egg salad. Or else one waits for a gate to open up following a long flight while babies cry and toilets overflow and people are famished for anything but a minipretzel. New Yorkers know that rules about remaining in their seats don't apply to them. What are the airport police going to do — take away our feet?

Surely there will soon be an annual awards ceremony for individuals who go berserk in the most newsworthy way, such as when a cell phone rang nonstop during a one-woman off-Broadway show. When the theatergoer finally answered, the actress hopped offstage, got on the line, and explained the circumstances to the caller. How many actors can say they've received a standing ovation just ten minutes into a performance?

I haven't yet turned into a cell phone freak, but sadly I have become one of those people who arrive for long international flights wearing pajamas. I vaguely recall that when I was a child, people actually used to dress up for plane travel as if they were going to a wife-swapping party. That was back before passengers were required to strip, have their skivvies wanded, and submit to a colonoscopy prior to boarding.

Nowadays many people wear their sweats and scuffs to the airport like toddlers being taken to a drive-in movie. It's hard to blame frequent fliers, since they know what it's like to spend several days waiting out a power failure, terrorist attack, or volcano eruption while sleeping atop molded plastic chairs and bathing in the shallow metal sink of a public restroom. And just when that ordeal ends, reclaiming one's luggage is more like awaiting the birth of a first child. That's why a sequined poly-blend tracksuit has come to symbolize what naturalists call adaptability and functions as the linchpin to our survival as a species. Or as Gilbert and Sullivan so memorably wrote: "Let the punishment fit the crime." Next stop, New Delhi.


Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws

I discovered that catching a cab from the airport to your hotel in any Indian metropolis is an exercise in patience and networking, as would seem to be the case throughout much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. You will see lots of taxis, but whenever you inquire about hiring one, a man leads you in the opposite direction. A transaction may eventually occur that appears to be on the up-and-up, but you still don't climb into a cab. Noisy caucusing continues at curbside or in a parking lot as if political candidates are being selected in some smoke-filled back room. There are more conversations and peregrinations, and finally you're excited to be loading your bags into a trunk. However, the driver now disappears for a period of time. Several people have asked you for money "for helping," which is a good moment to point out that you requested a taxi and not to be led through a labyrinth of wheeler-dealers who appear to have been extras in Slumdog Millionaire. The driver then returns with someone else who has also been "helped." On the bright side, using the prepaid taxi stand (which does not cut out nearly as many middlemen as one would think) avoids any unexpected companions and tours of the city that serve to run up the meter. However, the only place I've seen more hot meters than in New York City is Bulgaria, where the taxis are driven by former Olympic weightlifters and thus negotiation is discouraged.

The real culture shock of New Delhi doesn't begin so much with the separate exit from baggage claim for ladies as it does upon hitting the highway. You're driving in a country where one hundred thousand people a year are killed in road accidents, which would be like losing the entire population of Boulder, Colorado, by the end of every December. The city of Delhi alone has about ten thousand accidents a year, with twenty-five hundred fatalities. And this is a place without blizzards, black ice, or avalanches. Driver's education clearly needs to be supplemented with classes in applied physics, because the main problem is that the roads are filled with a wide range of objects of varying weights, number of legs, and trajectories traveling at different velocities, including but not confined to: pedestrians, pedicabs, pushcarts, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, scooters, careening motorcycles, antique tractors, heavy machinery, brightly painted trucks, buses, cars, thirty-year-old Fiat taxis, SUVs, donkey carts, oxen, bovines, goats, and equal numbers of three- and four-legged dogs. My favorites were the makeshift vehicles constructed from the leftover parts of others (presumably demolished in accidents), such as a combine seat and steering wheel atop a minivan chassis with the windshield of an old crop duster and the bell from a bicycle. Think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. None of these modes of conveyance contained seatbelts or airbags (unless you include animal bladders). Anything framed in metal featured numerous dents, while anything framed in fur sported bald spots. Two questions immediately arose: (1) Is my life insurance paid up? and (2) Where are all the trial lawyers?


Excerpted from Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws by Laura Pedersen. Copyright © 2012 Laura Pedersen. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Bewildered, Bothered, and Bewitched 1

Eastward Ho! 9

Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws 13

Mother India 21

Old and New Delhi 29

Taj Mahal 41

Safaris, Spas, and Shopping 49

Shall We Gather at the River? 57

Oh! Kolkata! 65

Salaam Mumbai! 81

All Aboard! 101

Down South 111

So Many Gods, So Little Time 123

Caste Away System 145

Boldface Names 151

Monkeys and Tigers and Snakes, Oh My! 167

Game Changers: Women and Children 175

India Unbound 191

About the Author 210

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Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws: A Journey Through Modern India 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
literarymuseVC More than 1 year ago
Laura Pederson has moved in a new direction with this nonfiction account of her interest in and exploration of modern India. Beginning with an explanation of her fascination with India, she humorously relates how the TV show Bewitched with its Dr. Bombay character propelled her to notice there was a difference between Americans naming American Indians, island Indians and India-Indians. It gradually led her to desire to visit this land that unfortunately is only known for its more horrific stereotypes, some of which do exist but which hardly touch on the many faceted nature of this unique country. So the reader will travel with the author to see just what the truth is. Laura Pedersen doesn't shy away from the good, the bad, and the ugly in her travels. However, it is amazing to see how she touches on all the important aspects of Indian culture. For instance, there are chapters on many cities such as Delhi where the beautiful sites of the Qutub Minar (the world's tallest black minaret) vie with places like the Jain Bird Hospital where birds who are injured from the national pastime of kite flying (bearing little similarity to the American kite flying pleasure) are treated and allowed to heal. Or perhaps you'd like to visit the gorgeous Taj Mahal which in some places occasionally springs a leak (and romantics call shedding a tear). There are glorious spas, shopping enough for any shopaholic, and animal resorts. The diversity of things to do is amazing. And of course there are the culinary delights which range from fiery to mild Indian dishes to salivate the glands of any food lover! Or Mumbai with its Standing Babas who vow to never sit or lay down again to work off any bad karma in their past. Aspects of history are thrown in for good measure, with an assurance that safety measures are as important there as anywhere since the rise of terrorism. Other sections are devoted to little known aspects of the major religions of India as well as a discussion of the benefits and liabilities of the caste system that holds sway in some Indian towns and has been abandoned in more modern cities. There's even a chapter describing the major Indian political leaders and what they are best and little known for during their careers. And there's so much more than what has been described here! While there is not a huge depth to these discussions, any reader is bound to both learn and be intrigued by the facets the author does add about each item of discussion. Any reader enjoying this book just might start to think about adding this to their "bucket list" of places to visit and explore in the near or far future!!! Very interesting and well done, Ms. Pedersen. You are a writer with many styles of writing to your credit - travel writing is your latest that is so well done!
Mickel_Paris More than 1 year ago
The book to read for anyone traveling to India or interested in learning about the country. A perfect mix of tourist attractions, history, yoga, culture, religion, and politics. Well-written and laugh-out-loud funny. Sections are short enough and clearly demarkated so if there's an area you want to skip it's easy enough, but I don't advise it since to understand this fascinating country this author sifted through tons of information to give you exactly what you need, even if you just want to speak intelligently about India or understand what's being written about the subcontinent in the newspaper. But if you haven't been to this amazing place, you'll want to book a trip ASAP.
JackieMBooe More than 1 year ago
If you are planning to travel to India, or even just curious about the true India, this book is a must have. It is a true account of the authors trip to India and her studies of its culture. I must say, it is fantastic. Her writing style is wonderful and this book will have you laughing out loud. It will also provide you a true sense of what India is like. She will give you a great description of India's culture, as well as its rich history. Overall, this book is a gem. Do not waste time, give this book a chance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
paulat35 More than 1 year ago
This book is a hilarious but informative glance at life in India. People tend to rely so much on what the news tells us about other people, places and cultures, that we don’t know what life is really like outside of our country. The author did a fabulous job of telling about her experiences in India using descriptive details that bring out a range of emotions. She describes everything from the economic climate to the day to day way of life of the people of India. She discusses important cultural topics such as the rights of women, but does so in a way that is not judge mental. Her descriptions of the transportation system, or lack thereof, is hilarious and makes me think California drivers aren’t that bad after all! Whether you are planning to take a trip to India or just want to learn about a country beyond what is reported on the news, I highly recommend this fun yet informative book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In addition to traveler's highlights there are excellent but brief descriptions of politics, history, religion and the economy which I found useful but one could skip. The report on wildlife (seeing and conserving) and also the oppression and opportunities encountered by women and girls was absorbing. If you are considering a trip to India this is a must-read while being breezy, highly entertaing and up-to-date. It also gives some social service ideas for your trip if that's of interest.
Robbie Jean More than 1 year ago
I am currently waiting to visit India, it’s part of a volunteer tour to help out certain areas of the world. My mom saw this book online and thought it would be good for me to read up a bit before I went. I have got to thank the author for writing such a wonderful book, for explaining the misconceptions most people have by just following the news and for giving me a new outlook on Indian culture, tradition and way of life. This book is a fun read; it’s educational and will definitely change how you see other parts of the world. I highly recommend this book to others and am giving it 5 stars!
DaniB26 More than 1 year ago
I have got to say that this blew me away. I was extremely pleased with how well written this book was, the author, Ms. Laura Pedersen has clearly put a lot of time into making a wonderful book. There is a lot of detail, a lot of visualization, and a lot of interesting facts and opinions. I have always loved reading about other countries and learning how people live, it’s a unique thing to really have a greater understanding of the world we live in. To be honest India was never one of the places I was interested in but after I began reading this book my opinion completely changed, and I now see their way of life much different than how I had before, thanks to Laura Pedersen.
marty nelson More than 1 year ago
Laura Pedersen does an absolute immaculate job on this book! I had never known the power and the growth that is happening in India and the impact it will have on children and woman today and in the future. This book gives you a great insight, a first person point of view of what it is like in India. Through descriptive observations and stories you will fall in love with, this book is a must read!
MAPritchardMP More than 1 year ago
Written with great wit and stunningly clear observations, "Planes, Trains and Auto-Rickshaws" offers dazzling pictures and keen insights into a culture most of us here in the states don't understand. Filled with personal stories, I found myself feeling as if Pedersen was on the couch next to me telling me of her adventures on the highway in Delhi. Having travelled extensively throughout China and SE Asia, reading this book triggered memories, left me laughing, and reignited my own wanderlust. Pedersen observes India but does not apologize for any culture resulting in a true and unwashed look at the country of India.
ChittyBang More than 1 year ago
This book transported me to India from my couch! It is laugh- out- loud funny! Great for the traveler or people like me who live vicariously through the written word. I highly recommend!
VaterOlsen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Part travelogue and part travel guide, Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws provides Laura Pedersen's insights into India. With humor and reminders that despite our differences we are quite the same, this book will be useful for travelers in India and those who want a view into the country.
Piaras More than 1 year ago
Everything is in one place -- history, culture, travel tips, religion, customs, and architecture -- for a terrific trip to India. This is also the perfect read if you're just interested in Southeast Asia. Pedersen somehow manages to cover everyone from famous rulers to snake charmers. India is 1/3 the size of the US but with dozens of different languages and a wonderful adventure. Don't miss the rat temple! A fasinating and very interesting read! 5 Stars from me.