Our 4 month trip nearly came crashing down en route to Jaipur. This was no mean feat: the only thing greater than our feeling of being adventurous and spirited travellers was our deep investment in this adventurousness representing our character. We were hardened, we thought: wizened, callused, tough. Our skin was like leather, and we all had our battle scars. We had not-so-idly considered purchasing eye patches, maybe spurs, and sitting in dusty cantinas rhapsodizing about the war. No pitiful “discomfort” could ever so upset us that we would even cringe, never mind head for the hills. Nothing could defeat us. We were Travellers, upper-case t.
We had chartered a bus to get us from Amritsar to our next destination, but were told that our path was a little odd and that few modes of transport plied this particular route. We would have to be a lot more understanding, a lot more accepting, of just about anything we got if we wanted to get to Jaipur cheaply. Our bus to Dharamsala had spoiled us in regards to comfort and pleasantness, and we were made to understand that this ride would not be a picnic. As we arrived at the expansive dirt lot surrounded in rusted chain-link and saw our chariot, this became clear.
Our bus was not so much a bus as a large, dilapidated heap of disintegrating metal and barely-working engine parts. For at least a few minutes after our rickshaw driver pointed us to our mode of conveyance, we wondered if we would be involved in powering the vehicle itself, if perhaps there would be little open slats under each seat so that everyone could Fred Flintstone us through the Rajasthani desert. We also considered that maybe the bus was coal powered, or maybe they would bring the horses to harness to the front bumper, or maybe we had died on the way to the parking lot and this was Chiron’s boat directly to the darkest, saddest, crustiest parts of the afterlife.
We stumbled aboard, and found the rickety ladders leading to the beds we had purchased. Scrambling up into these berths required usage of the arm and head rests of at least three different seats that were wedged tightly below the class coffins which encased our sleeping pads, and our first climb thankfully did not involve us accidentally kicking other passengers in the face. We settled each into our narrow sliver of slick, greasy metal, and attempted to make ourselves comfortable, and never allowed our clothes or skin to touch any of the surfaces around us.
The bus eventually began to fill with the weary and the angry, strangers periodically ripping open our casket doors to peer in at us and ponder whether they could somehow wedge themselves in. Once the beds filled up, people grudgingly took the uncomfortable seats below, and several hours after our scheduled departure time, we slowly shuddered out of the lot.
The driver, I believe, was probably a psychologist from the University of Delhi running some sort of experiment on prolonged stress exposure. Also it possible that he had never driven a bus before, nor a car, nor seen a motorized vehicle in action, nor used his eyes or ears or hands or feet. For roughly 13 hours that long night the driver proceeded to accelerate wildly and slam on the brakes aggressively without reason or pattern, seemingly entering a fugue state and allowing his hands and feet to spasm and clatter against the steering wheel and the pedals as various electrical impulses cavalierly careened down his motor neurons. For most of this time, he also made sure to lay on the horn, which played the first four bars of “La Cucaracha” in aggressive car noises before fading like an acrid fart into the night, only to be replaced seconds later when he laid on the horn again.
In my little coffin, earphones fixed in my ears, shivering from the cold of the desert which leaked haphazardly through my broken window, I tried to be thankful I had a bed with a curtain and was not trapped down below. Down below, where there were lights, and trunks all over the centre aisle, and where a four-year-old child decided to scream for 12 consecutive hours while his parents paid him no heed. Every time we stopped for a pee break, which was approximately once every thirty minutes, I would share brief eye-contact with the pitiless souls trapped in the main cabin. They had seen hell. They knew its shape, had felt its flames. It was the bus to Jaipur.
Of course, my coffin didn’t prove to be the best location, either. With every jerky start and stop I would ricochet off the walls and the windows, and every sudden brake meant slamming my head into the cold metal at the end of my compartment. I began lodging soft items between the crown of my head and the growing dent it was making in the aluminum siding, took some of our discount Thai Valium, and attempted to sleep.
At around 6 in the morning, the bus began to slow, and movement thrummed in the aisle below. Bodies shifted, bags were carried, and the wailing child was at last removed from earshot, and possibly thrown to the wolves. We were in Jaipur!
Actually, we were at a strange intersection in the middle of the desert, and our bus would go no further. When we moved to the front to check what was amiss, our driver indicated that our ride to Jaipur was the other bus currently trundling off down towards the highway, and we should probably run to catch it.
We managed to flag the bus down, tossed our gear in the trunk, and flung ourselves aboard. All of the seats were full, and the driver of our previous bus conferred with the driver of the new. After a time, they deemed us too dainty and delicate to stand in the back among the adults, and ushered us into the driver’s compartment up front where several teenage boys were being kept.
We took off. The sun rose over the scrublands, light washing the sands and the ragged trees and the animals, and it seemed like the beginning of some bucolic, perfect day. This driver didn’t even rely on the horn half as much as the last! Things were looking up.
It became difficult to cling to this tiny bulb of optimism after the third hour on the current bus, as the sun beat down through the window, as the compartment began to fill with elderly or pregnant women, as we realized we had no idea where we were or if we were even headed vaguely towards our eventual destination.
Hours passed, the day grew hotter still, yet more women and infants filed in (by our count, there were 14 humans inside the cramped driver’s compartment by the end). The driver grew bored and began to imitate the style of our previous bus-wielding torture demon, and we felt fairly certain that we were going to die somewhere along this path.
At last we arrived in crisp, beautiful, sandstone Jaipur, roughly 18 hours of transportation later. We had arranged for a driver to pick us up from the bus station–of course, we were not actually at a bus station so much as another dirt lot, this one surrounded in heavy construction, dozens of other buses and cars spewing exhaust in our faces, and numerous angry cows. Also, we were six hours late.
Drivers swarmed to us and we piled into the first rickshaw that claimed to know the location we showed him on our map. The man deposited us in a desolate alleyway behind a derelict school, peopled only by a herd of anguished, hungry goats that eyed us viciously. We roamed up and down the adjacent alleys, checking with storeowners and passersby about our current location, about the address of our guesthouse, about the cohesion of the universe and if it looked like we were suffering from some form of goat-addled hysteria. No one knew what we were talking about, and some seemed reluctant to confirm that we were actually in Jaipur, or for that matter India, or maybe even the Milky Way galaxy. Goats were beginning to follow us. They could taste our fear.
In another rickshaw that dropped us off at another dead-end filled with goats, the idea of simply going directly to the airport and flying home was semi-seriously bandied around. Our bodies ached, we hadn’t slept, and hadn’t had food or water in many hours. We had never been so lost, and in moments of severe lostness, it is easy to see every stranger as involved in some high-level conspiracy to fleece you and steal your kidneys.
Another rickshaw, another number of rupees discarded, another goat. I felt certain this one could see into my soul. I think he was a telepath. He whispered the lyrics to a Janis Joplin song, translated into Swahili, into the back of my brain in his goaty voice. I considered killing and eating this goat, much as I assume he considered doing the same to me.
Finally Ty paid off a stranger to borrow their cellphone, and we secured passage towards our guesthouse. As we rode, bags clutched to our chests, anguished tears clinging to our eyeballs in spite, we silently made the vow that if this ride was a bust, we were going home.
And thus we arrived at our guesthouse. A full day had passed since Amritsar, and as we paid the driver, the man who lent us his cellphone asked for double the fare, because he saw the shape of our spirits and thought now was the time to attempt to crush us. We paid him and dragged our dishevelled, weary corpses up the narrow stairway.
We described our ordeal to the owner of our guesthouse, a pleasant elderly man with a delicate moustache and several decades of military service to his name. He nodded severely at our tale, poured us each a cup of chai. “That would be a difficult journey,” he declared, “even for an Indian person.” We nodded, somewhat vaguely satisfied that at least someone could assure us we weren’t just pampered Western infants, and staggered directly to bed.