Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The longest bus trip

Perhaps I was misguided in thinking I might get some sleep on the overnight bus between Delhi and Manali. The coach's optimistic schedule has it leaving Janpath at 6pm, a brief dinner stop at a roadside Haryana dhaba, then through the night up the hill to reach Manali by 6am.

Down with a cold, I tried to get out of my bus ticket, but failed, so I arrived at the designated coach stop in central Delhi. Here I found hundreds of passengers waiting to get on one of dozens of buses, in a busy street. It took me almost an hour to find my bus, which turned out to be in a completely different location to what I'd been told, but it didn't matter as it was well past seven by the time we left, after the sharp-featured Sikh driver had shot the breeze and smoked beedis with his mates. The bus, an ageing Volvo with dust-flecked curtains and broken pouches lurched into action for a minute or two, then inexplicably stopped again. There it stayed, on an empty road, just metres from our starting point, for a good ten minutes.

My plan had been to get at least five hours sleep which would leave me the entire day to explore the town of Manali. I had come armed with foam sleeping plugs to help me, and was pleased to find I had no one sitting next to me.

I dozed for a bit, then woke with a start. Looking out the window, it was dark and we were travelling down an isolated albeit manicured highway. Along came a building, rising out from the empty blackness. Next to it, a stand with a black digital banner, showing headlines of the day. It was the office of the local newspaper: Chandigarh was approaching.

At the next stop, a group of adult passengers got on, and an argument about seating held up the bus another 20 minutes. There was a lot of shouting by the men standing in the aisle as they jabbed their tickets, a lot of shrugging by the driver, and a lot of sighing by the women. In Hindi, so I didn't understand. Finally one of the men looked over at me. "Well what do you say, what is your choice, young lady?"

They'd apparently been arguing about who had to sit next to me.

Finally one of the wives acquiesced. She was clutching a toddler girl, who turned to stare. "Mama, auntie bolo?" she asked, but didn't wait for an answer, just settled into her mother's bosom and fell asleep.

It wasn't long until little Hasinca was spread-eagled across her mother and me - feet resting on my knee, hands hanging numbly in my airspace. Her mother too was spreading under the weight of her child and had firmly colonised the arm rest, while her head was dangling precariously near my shoulder.

I envied their easy sleep, something I was far from, not helped by the raucous Bollywood flick playing overhead. In fact, it was the latest of many films off the one pirated DVD that had been on rotation throughout the trip., complete with static. However every time the driver took a phone call he turned the volume off or hit pause, replacing the blaring strains of "Gold mine, gold mine, everyone wants a gold mine" with the shouted contents of his call. He would then flick to another film, meaning I will now never find out what happens in the end of Garam Masala, in which some hapless playboy spends the first two and a half hours juggling air hostess girlfriends called Preity and Schweety.

Added to this were the soft snores from Hasinca's mother in my ear. No matter how many times I gently nudged her towards the aisle, her head would inevitably drift back towards me.

Eventually the movie ended at about 2am. Finally some quiet, I thought. But it was not to be. Immediately the driver started up his tape of bhangra tunes, loudly, and this time without sweet blessed telephone breaks. So I resigned myself to a night of no sleep; it didn't help me that all around me were able to.

By this stage we were well into the mountains, travelling up a skinny steep road. Outside, lush grass and towering pine trees lined the road. On one side - thankfully not mine - the road dropped away steeply, with the occasional row of boulders or concrete slabs cautioning against driving too rashly. This route is popular at night, judging by the amount of traffic, and we found ourselves stuck in frequent jams, alongside trucks bearing likenesses of Krishna clutching his flute just above the windows, in the 'third eye' spot. After a good half hour wait at one were were back on the way, only to halt suddenly a short time later.

Driver went out to investigate, came back in and mumbled something in Punjabi, switched off the air conditioning, grabbed his bedroll and went back out. I tried to sleep but finally gave up and headed outside for some air. Ahead, a couple of trucks and a bus were also stopped; turned out the bus had broken down and behind us, a line of vehicles as far as I could see. No one had thought to try to direct traffic around the broken-down bus. Instead, our driver had rolled out his bedroll on the road in front of the bus and was having a nap. Most of the people from our bus were scattered out on the road, some lying prostrate on the concrete barriers lining the road, others crouched and smoking.

I was a bit dazed and woozy and didn't fancy trying to sleep on a boulder only to roll over and find myself rolling down the mountain, so went exploring. About 100 feet up the hill was a little temple. I took off my shoes and went inside. Despite its apparent modesty, it was fitted out with about half a dozen elaborate, almost life size statues of various gods. Most appeared to be Shiva or Vishnu and various incarnations, clutching their wives on one side and tridents on the other. I'm Hindu but it's been a while since I was last in a temple - my wedding wasn't even in one - so I wasn't really sure what to do.

Out of nowhere appeared a sadhu, with dreadlocks and wearing shrunken and stained shorts and a t-shirt. Muttering and swinging his dreads, he bounced from one statue to the next, placing what looked like a beedi on the fork of each trident.

Then the bells started. Unnoticed by me was a network of about twenty bells of varying sizes and shapes suspended from the roof. In those eerie minutes before dawn, the sandhu was conducting his daily puja.

I got out of the way, stepped outside and joined the crowd gathering there. The sadhu's bell ringing and chanting was a long crescendo, gradually getting louder and more frenzied. Some in the crowd bent their head so their forehead met their namasted fingertips; some touching their eye, nose, earlobe and cheek in rapid succession, others just gawking at the spectacle, with the sky still dark but daylight about to burst through.

The sadhu must have done something right for it wasn't long before driver came crashing through, announcing we were to be on our way.

Our bus trundled along for a while, stopping a few hours later for breakfast. I abstained, not wanting to be forced to go to a roadside toilet. Hasinca and her mother went back to their original seats and one of their male companions took the seat next to me, nervously sitting on his hands and joking with his friends. I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep, but was thrown awake with a neck-jarring jolt and screams. I turned to see, over the aisle, little Hasinca and her parents covered in pebbly glass, along with the couple behind them. I thought a boulder had rolled down the side of the mountain and screamed, but it turned out we'd been hit by a truck coming too fast around a bend. Wordlessly, most of the men on the bus got up, filed out, and helped with the negotiations. Other passengers used towels to break the remaining glass from the window pane.

Another hour later we were back on our way.


Liberty London Girl said...

I love your blog! So glad you are updating regularly LLGxx

Ramit Grover said...

Oh the accident must have been dreadful. Glad no one was hurt. Hope you had a fun time in Manali. Are you there still or have you come back to Delhi?

desiderata said...

Thanks LLG! I too am a regular follower of your blog.
Ramit: yep am back in Delhi! Thanks for following my little blog. It's nice to know there are actual readers out there, and not just random ISP numbers.

Ramit Grover said...

Oh! You could have gone to Mc LeodGunj on the way back to Delhi from Manali. You could keep that as a separate trip if you have the time to later.

Unknown said...

Sounds like an adventure.. Do you drive in India?

kismet said...

OMG, I so feel your pain. I've done that bus trip a couple of times, but fortunately neither trips have been as eventful as yours!! Loved the account of it.