A bike, a bus, and some bribes

I’ve been riding my bicycle around Pondichery, India for the past six weeks.

Most every late afternoon I will ride eight or 10 or 12 kilometers for exercise and sightseeing. I rarely see any other Caucasians. I get a kick out of ringing my bell, smiling, and waving at the bemused little kids and old people who often take note of me.

Along the way I usually stop at a local ‘wine shop’ (as beer and liquor stores are called in India) and get a couple cold Kingfisher beers, which I then discreetly consume somewhere along the waterfront at sunset before riding back home for dinner (or restaurant) with my wife and mom. (Like the USA, drinking alcohol in public is illegal here – but empty bottles and cans litter the nation.)

Such is early retired life in the south India tropics during the dead of North American winter. Not a bad place to be in February.

But later this week, we are ‘moving’; leaving Pondicherry and relocating about 100 kilometers north to a well-known seaside Hindu pilgrimage town called Mahabalipuram. Now a problem with my beloved mountain bike: transport.

The public buses that run constantly up and down the Bay of Bengal coastline are not equipped to carry bicycles – or any larger personal belongings. They have small enclosed undercarriage compartments – good for a few suitcases, no more. Occasionally, there is a bus with a roof rack. But those are rare, seem unused, and are in decrepit condition. I scouted out the situation a couple weeks ago in preparation for our move. No easy answer.

Of course, we could simply hire a private car/van with AC to carry myself and wife and mom and the bike and our luggage to our next destination. I  ‘shopped’ around and was quoted 3200 rupees ($40) for the lowest price. An option for sure.

But where’s the fun in that? We’re Earth Vagabonds – adventurers! Plus, $40 is a lot of beers! I’m determined to do it for less.  Here’s how it went.

A bike, a bus, and some bribes

I decided to hang around the Pondicherry central bus stand (terminal) and see if I might ‘convince’ a bus conductor to allow my bike on the bus with me. I’d buy an extra ticket or two – thus paying for the extra space. And offer a ‘tip’.

The bus stand is a crazy bustling place. Dozens of coaches. Constant blaring horns. A mass of people, vendors, beggars, animals, construction, fumes, heat. And hardly anybody speaks English.

I approached a few ‘bus crews’ (driver and conductor) who were loading up for the route I needed. I demonstrated how easily my bike could be squeezed in the back row of seats – near the rear door. I offered $5… $8… $10. Confusion. Denials. Laughter. Try again.

After about 20 minutes, an Indian guy – another traveler –  who spoke good English got involved. He started explaining and propositioning more bus crews as they recruited and loaded passengers. More refusals. My translator told me that bikes were not permitted on board – that a random enroute ‘ticket check’, which does occur sometimes to prevent ‘under the table’ ticket sales (theft), could cause a big problem for the bus crew breaking the rules.

But now an ‘off duty’ conductor was on the case too – a ‘fixer’. He had spoken with my translator (in Tamil) and both of them were now working for me. After about 20 more minutes, the off-duty guy announced he had found a willing bus crew; it would cost 700 rupees ($8.40). I handed over the money and they loaded my bike onto a nearly empty bus – in the back row, just as I had suggested. I sat down with the bike and waited for departure.

An argument erupted between my translator and fixer. Obviously, they were fighting over the 700 rupees I had paid. In addition, some of that money was no doubt pledged to the bus crew who agreed to take me – despite the rules. So the $8.40 was to be shared at least three ways and the fixer probably decided the translator hadn’t done anything worth a share.

To settle the matter, I opened my coin purse and gave the translator 150 rupees ($1.80). The fixer then grunted and made the “hand-to-mouth eating” sign – asking for lunch money. With a chuckle, I gave him another 100 rupees ($1.20) — and for good measure, gave the translator 30 rupees more, the last of my small bills. I thanked them both, we all shook hands and they departed (for lunch?).

I never did witness any interaction between my fixer and the bus conductor who was now collecting fares from the other passengers on the bus. When he got to me in the final row, he demanded 100 rupees for my ticket/fare. I confirmed with him – as best I could in English – my drop off point along the main highway outside of Mahabalipuram village.

To head off any further problems, I also told the conductor I would give him another 200 rupees ($2.40) upon reaching the destination. He responded with a friendly Indian ‘head bobble’ and a big smile.

In a few minutes, we were on the road. The bus started off mostly empty – but filled to about 80% as we made repeated roadside pickups. I rested my feet on the bike frame to keep it from bouncing around. Other passengers did sit in the back row – there was plenty of room. I took photos of the Indian towns and temples, rice fields and ranches, beaches and coastal backwaters.

After about two hours, the bus pulled into a ‘rest area’ for a lunch break. I watched the driver and conductor hurriedly eat a sit-down meal as myself and other riders milled around a shaded patio serving cold drinks, tea, and snacks. Twenty minutes later, we continued on. The Mahabalipuram road junction was only 30 more minutes. The conductor gave me a shout from the front of the bus as we approached. I had been following along on Google maps.

We pulled onto the dusty road berm and the conductor helped unload the bike from outside the rear door. I clambered down and gave him the promised 200 rupee bill. In less than 30 seconds it was over – the bus pulling away. I rode the bike toward Mahabalipuram town and our next Airbnb. On the way, I stopped at a wine shop for cold brews. It’s hot here!

After chatting with our next Airbnb host, I locked up the bike and walked the mile back to the highway/bus junction. Within 10 minutes a southbound bus with AC pulled up and I was heading back to Pondicherry. The AC bus fare was higher – 120 rupees ($1.44). We made the same ‘rest/lunch stop’ on the return. Traffic in Pondicherry was heavy and slow at 6:00 p.m. when we finally got back to the central bus stand. Mission accomplished.

Total cost:

Bus tickets: 220 rupees = $2.44

Tips/Bribes: 1180 rupees = $14.20

Rest stop drink & candy = $1

Bus stand tuktuk ride home = $1.80


Bike drop adventure total= $19.44

(plus $3.20 for the two roadside beers)

Later this week we will make the same one-way trip to Mahabalipuram as we relocate – myself, Ellen, and mom Diane. Those bus tickets plus tuktuk fares on each end will total about $9 more. Thus the total transport to get us and all our stuff to our next destination should be around $30 – plus beer.

Considering I spent more than eight hours arranging and traveling round-trip in connection with the ‘bike drop’ — paying another $10 (plus a tip) to a mini-van driver to make one single trip with AC might have been the wiser decision. But this was another adventure to remember. Plus, instead of paying a tourist car service, the payments I made to those individuals who helped with the bus arrangements were truly needed and appreciated. (Those guys probably make less than $10 per day).

As for the ‘bribes’?  I’m more comfortable thinking of them as tips. And I am glad there was no ‘bus ticket inspection’. That would have cost me another payment… lol.  Seriously, we’ve rarely ‘bribed’ anybody during our years of travel. (I’ve purposely avoided showing the faces of my ‘helpers’ in the photos seen here).

I remember a voluntary $5 ‘donation’ at the Belize/Mexico border to assure 180-day Mexican visa stamps (another time we were traveling with bikes). And I think I gave a couple bucks at the Cambodia/Thailand border to smooth our entry time.

Heck, a few months ago in Türkiye, I gave a ‘guard’ 60 cents to open up a locked door on an ancient rock-carved church to get a photo. Nothing serious. Indeed, I would NOT advise substantial negotiated payments to police or customs/immigration or political officials.

Still, when dealing with ‘regular folks’ in more informal situations it never hurts to have a few dollars in small bills ready to ‘grease the wheels’ and make a friend and memory if necessary. 

Meanwhile, I’ll be back on my bike – and at the wine shop – in a few days. Stay tuned for more slow travel info from the beach in Mahabalipuram.

As always, be thankful and generous, happy trails & more beer.

Life is NOW!

Thanks for reading, “A bike, a bus, and some bribes.”

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