In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
“Udaipur! Udaipur! Uuuuuuudaipur!!!”
With less than a minute to spare we hurried through the commotion of the bus terminal, heading towards the agitated sound of the final call. ‘‘Uuuuuuudaipur!!!”
‘‘There it is!’’ called Allan, our feet skidding on the gravel as we rounded a sharp corner. Straining my neck to see, I knocked into several people as I ran, praying that it wouldn’t pull away just when we’d finally found it. Happily we were in luck, though my initial excitement melted away as we came to a breathless stop. Our so-called deluxe bus was a monstrous hunk of metal no different from any of the other metallic clones that filled Jaisalmer Bus Station. Where exactly had my extra Rupees gone?
“Udaipur?” puffed Lena, red-cheeked, and like the rest of us more than a little flustered. “Udaipur!” confirmed the guard, “you go Udaipur?”
“Yes” I answered.
“You have ticket?”
“Yes!” we all replied in unison.
Allan fumbled in the breast pocket of his shirt, almost dropping the stubs as he pushed them into the man’s hand. “This are tickets?” came his bizarre question. ‘‘Yes!!!’’ confirmed Holly, lines of sweat racing down her cheeks. ‘‘Tickets for Udaipur?’’
Closing my eyes in an attempt to tune out and tap into my inner karma, I resisted the urge to scream at this idiotic man. Thankfully the eternally diplomatic Allan took over and having finally understood that we were indeed Udaipur-bound, the man informed us that taking our backpacks onboard was ‘‘not allowed’’. And so we were directed to the Liggage Compertment at the back of the bus, where a sign encouraged passengers to Leave Your Values. ‘‘Five Rupees one bag!’’ demanded Liggage Boy, a shifty teen who looked as though he’d hot-wired a car or two in his time. He held out an expectant hand as a wave of cynicism swelled among the gathered travellers.
Surveying the situation, I couldn’t help but share in the general concern. An infamous Indian bus scam saw storage berths left accidentally unlocked. Then, usually just a few minutes after departure, the bus makes a routine stop at a set of traffic lights and a gaggle of thieves slip between the vehicles. It takes them just seconds to open the door and bundle your Liggage into a nearby rickshaw before speeding off. It’s usually hours before you realize you’ve lost your values.
“How about we give you the money when we get our bags back in Udaipur?” suggested a well-built American in a Yankees cap. The boy shook his head defiantly, a floppy mass of dark hair falling over his beady eyes, “Money now!” Reluctantly paying him, we pushed our bags as far to the back as possible so that they were buried behind the others. The American guy meanwhile promised to keep an eye on things from his spot in the back row of the bus.
Onboard, the seating allocation was a complete fiasco! Allan and I quickly discovered we had the same numbers as a middle-aged American couple who were already settled in and had no intention of moving. When we alerted the driver to the situation, he simply told us to “find seat”. So, less than animated at the prospect of standing up for fourteen hours, that’s exactly what we did!
Installing ourselves behind Lena and Holly, we were soon approached by two Indian women, whose seats we’d just hijacked. With sheepish smiles we muttered our apologies, while they in turn grabbed the nearest available spaces. And so the wheels were set in motion for total bedlam, the four of us looking on in bemusement as the stampede unfolded. Get a seat, any seat, by any means! It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Before long the bus was jam-packed and there were still people boarding; mostly Indian men who had to make do with standing in the aisle. They didn’t seem at all surprised or put out by this inconvenience and it struck me that for them this was probably business as usual. Outside an impossibly good-looking Swedish couple refused to board until they’d seen the boy lock the compartment door. The argument went back and forth until the driver threatened to leave without them. Moments later all three scurried onboard, Liggage Boy sitting alongside the driver on a raggedy cushion, while the seat-less Swedes wore the unimpressed looks of two people who knew they were in for the most uncomfortable fourteen hours of their lives.
It was time to go, yet there was still space for another passenger, a formidable beast of a man we came to christen The Colonel. He stomped onboard, dressed in some kind of military uniform, his tree trunk arms swinging back and forth. A camouflage rucksack attached to his muscly shoulders, his chest almost bursting out of a crisp white shirt; he sported meticulously polished boots that looked more like weaponry than footwear. Knocking Liggage boy out of the way with an open-palmed slap, The Colonel claimed ownership of the cushion before turning his attention to the driver, who he proceeded to verbally assault with a furious monologue. By the time he’d finished some minutes later, we’d pulled out of the station and were now clattering down the highway, full speed ahead.
With the journey underway, The Colonel began working his way through the aisle, counting heads, checking tickets and generally scaring the shit out of everyone. A few unfortunates even found themselves subject to interrogation. Who are you? Where are you going? What did you have for breakfast? Just watching him do his thing was draining, so Allan and I made a pact not to mess with him in any way. Finally done with his duties, The Colonel reclaimed his perch next to the driver where he sat chain-smoking and stroking his mustache, all the while staring fixedly at the road ahead.
Kicking away the remains of a squashed sandwich and a rotting apple core, I regarded my immediate surroundings with a view to making myself more comfortable for the long journey ahead. sFirst came the discovery that the overheard fan was broken, then the grim realisation that my so-called reclining seat was jammed. Adding insult to injury, the bus made a tight turn and a random Indian man slid across the aisle into my lap where he sat grinning at me like a village idiot. In fact, he looked so pleased with himself that for a horrific moment I thought he might stay for breakfast, but thankfully he made his apologies and returned to his spot in no man’s land.
Gradually the road became rockier and the bus began jolting from side to side. I was starting to feel queasy when we came to a screeching halt, the windows clouding up with dust. As the mist cleared, we were amazed to see four more passengers ready to join the fun! With precious little space inside, The Colonel jumped out and began noisily directing them onto the roof!!!
Hoisting each other up in neighborly solidarity, they then had to reach down for their plentiful and varied baggage, which included a box of overflowing cricket bats and a small cage of miserable chickens. The roof groaning ominously above us, I did my best to be amused by it all and clear my mind of thoughts best categorised as worst-case scenario.
Uncomfortable, hot and becoming increasingly tired, the subsequent hours bled into each other in a blur of disjointed images. There were semi-naked children playing on the muddy roadside and filthy dogs sniffing through mounds of garbage. Stunning lush green landscapes came and went, faraway hills dissipating before my eyes as darkness descended.
Later on at some timeless hour, The Colonel announced a short stop at a godforsaken dustbowl of a village. Trundling out into the airless night like extras from Night of the Living Dead, we stood snacking on samosas while the roof people awkwardly descended with all their goods before wandering off into the blackness. Then we were off again, the journey resuming through a curtain of impenetrable night. Exhaustion had fully set in now, but regrettably sleep wasn´t an option on The Bus Journey From Hell. The condition of the road steadily worsening, at times it got so bad we were literally bouncing up and down in our seats, the driver crunching through potholes and honking his horn whenever there was even a sniff of another vehicle in sight.
Just when I thought things couldn´t get any worse, the sound system crackled to life. Blaring out at an ear–shattering volume, we were forced to endure a dreadful album of Indian techno music, a woman howling in Hindi over relentless dance beats. I turned to Allan to express my disbelief but he was long gone, away in another world, staring frog-eyed into the seat in front of him. There was a pained expression from Lena too, who glanced back at me as if to say Shoot me now. I gave her a sympathetic squeeze of the hand as a baby began wailing a few rows ahead.
There were intermittent stops here and there, with passengers coming and going. At some point the music stopped, an event that was celebrated with a few ironic whoops and cheers. With the first traces of light creeping through the windows, we came to another standstill to pick up an ancient woman who took forever to hobble on board. Slowly but surely, her spindly limbs occluded by a multitude of swaying grocery bags, she made her way through the stuffy silence with a grimace that could have shattered glass. Regarding her dumbly as she plodded through the aisle, it felt as though I could have watched the director’s cut of Casino in the time it took her to sit down.
A good while later I found my eyes dropping and a warm fuzzy feeling sweeping over me as I succumbed to the sleep my body so desperately needed. Which, of course, was the exact moment we were all nearly killed.
In a surround sound tornado of screeching brakes, terrified gasps and dueling horns, we suddenly veered to the right and the bus temporarily skidded out of control. Seconds later a minivan scraped past, cracking a few of our windows as it went. It was all over in a flash, though not before I caught sight of a ghostly woman in the other vehicle, her face suspended in open-mouthed horror as our eyes met for the briefest of nanoseconds.
With our course stabilized, my heart started beating again and I took stock of my fellow passengers, a mass of stiff bodies and ashen faces. Amazingly nobody had been injured! The Swedes were sat cross-legged in the aisle looking bewildered, while Yankee cap American was slumped back with his head in his hands, clearly no longer worrying about the liggage. Even the old lady was unharmed, albeit enormously unimpressed at having lost her groceries, which had been redistributed across the bus. ‘‘Here you are’’ said Holly, handing her a dented tin of tuna.
High on the adrenaline of simply being alive, the final hour of the journey rushed by as bright bars of morning sunshine flowed in through the windows like sparkling white wine. Ironically, I fell asleep around ten minutes before we rolled into the city. “Udaipur!! Udaipur!!” I woke with a start to see Lena bending over us, rubbing her eyes, pulling on my sleeve. “Guys… we’re here!” Completely disoriented, I jumped up and my legs nearly buckled under the strain of my own body.
Invigorated by the cool morning air, I watched liggage boy slowly unloading the bags with all the enthusiasm of a one-armed man shoveling manure. Naturally I was delighted that our ordeal was over and grateful to be reunited with my unmolested backpack. Rummaging around in my money belt, I pulled out a ten Rupee note and dropped it into the boy’s grubby little hand. “Thank you sir!” he cooed with a wide grin. Heading back to the bus where the last few bags awaited, he turned to look at me one last time, his smile still firmly in place. “Welcome to Udaipur!” he said.