The next stop on my itinerary was in the town of Thanjavur, about 300km south-west. My original plan to get there from Mahabelipuram had been to take a bus back up to Chennai then catch an overnight train south again. but I’d not been able to get a confirmed place on the train when I’d had an online ticket booking frenzy the previous week (Indian trains can get fully booked long before their departure date). I’d only been able to get what is called a ‘waitlist’ ticket, which means you are in a queue for any seats freed up by cancellations or no-shows. And I wasn’t that close to the front of the queue either. The invaluable Man in Seat Sixty-One advises that most of the queue movement takes place in the last 24 hours, but I decided to drop the uncertainty, start in the morning and go by bus instead.
So I caught a passing bus to the next large town down the coast, where they told me there wasn’t a direct service to my destination (which my guidebook had claimed there was). However, there was a bus in just under an hour to somewhere on the way (I wasn’t clear how far along the way) so I took that. We spent around four hours bouncing along rural roads and through small towns and villages and I loved it! I was sat at the back just behind the always open door, by the window (also always open) and was utterly fascinated by ordinary life passing me by, especially the markets, agricultural activities and adobe houses with thatched roofs. I did feel like a voyeur into other people’s lives (especially as I took a few photos), but they had a great time pointing and waving at me, the only non-Indian on the bus, so perhaps we were even.
The final bus (which I found in the huge bus station by my usual tactic of asking everyone and following the pointing until someone finally indicated an actual vehicle) only took an hour, so I rolled into Thanjavur about nine hours after I set out and before the overnight train had even left Chennai. Which made me feel that I’d won a contest of some kind. I always get a sense of achievement from a successful encounter with public transport, especially in another language.