The mere thought of taking a long bus journey in India now brings a shiver up my spine. It has taken only three bus journeys to bring me to this point. As I now sit here and plan out the next few weeks of my travels, I am deliberately choosing routes that allow for train travel.
Surely I am over-reacting, public bus travel couldn’t be THAT bad. How about I tell you about some of my experiences, and you can be the judge.
Exhibit 1: Somewhere past Solan to Shimla (1.5 hours)
This was an accidental bus ride. My train broke down on the World Heritage listed train ride from Kalka to Shimla, so I had to take a local bus for the tail end of the journey (yes I do see the irony of this).
Upon boarding the packed bus, I managed to find a very small and precarious place to perch myself, just next to the driver. My large backpack stacked upon other luggage, and me being held upright only by the many locals squashed into this bus. In front of me was a couple of French girls who had also been on the same train.
We chatted away as we desperately tried not to be press against anyone on the bus. This effort was futile, as the bus flew up the rather bumpy and curvy road at breakneck speed. Staying upright was challenge enough, my abdominal muscles certainly made an appearance trying to steady my body. Even the locals seemed affected by this rocky ride.
As I was talking to my fellow tourists, I looked up and smiled as a three-year old girl stood up and looked over the seat in front of her, checking out one of the French girls. Then she casually opened her mouth and vomited all over this poor girl. The bus was cramped and there was little room for movement, so she was only able to scramble to find a tissue and try to move her head closer to the window for some air. She sat like this, in someone else’s vomit for the next 30 minutes. The stench was strong and it was challenging to not commence a ripple effect from watching someone else experience this.
Finally the bus jolted to a stop on the side of a dusty road and I let all the locals off first, so I could carefully place my backpack securely before I got off the bus. As I stepped off, I looked to the side and saw three other locals losing their lunch as they also recovered from the horrendous ride.
Exhibit 2: Dharamsala to Delhi (12 hours)
Against my better judgement I took an overnight bus from Dharamsala to Delhi. This was not by choice, I certainly prefer being lucid through my bus journeys, but it was the only bus available. In an effort to make the ride better, I paid a bit extra for a “Deluxe Tourist” bus.
From what I could ascertain, the only thing “Deluxe” about the bus was that my luggage could go underneath rather than inside the bus, and everyone had an allocated seat. Otherwise, the bus looked no different from the quality of local buses I had become accustomed to.
I was seated next to an Irish girl who was on her way home, so we chatted about our travels in India for a while. The ride was bumpy but nothing compared to my previous trip, so I prepared to try to sleep in my usual ritual. A light sedative, eye mask and ear plugs. Sleep was broken regularly by the jolts of the bus, but I managed to catch some winks.
At 3am I woke drowsily to my neighbour tapping me gently on the shoulder.
“Are you awake? Could you look outside the window and see what is going on please?”
I moved my eye mask, and pushed the curtain aside. It took a few minutes, but then it became apparent that the bus was moving in reverse, albeit slowly, on an expressway. We both looked back and could see cars flashing their headlights as they came towards us and the quickly shifted right into another lane.
Now I was wide awake.
After about 5 minutes, the bus finally came to a halt, although still on the expressway. Moving forward, the vehicle turned a little and the starting moving forward.
I have no idea what the driver was doing.
Exhibit 3: Chandigarh to Haridwar (7 hours)
I had learnt from my previous experience, and chose to take a day bus to Haridwar en route to Rishikesh. The bus was a local bus, so my luggage was in the bus with me. Thankfully the bus was not too packed, so there was room on a seat for my big pack (the floor was not appealing due to rain that had leaked throughout the bus).
It rained most of the day, and I was fearful of the limited tread on the tyres and the leaking roof, windows and sides of the bus. However this was not the worse part of this ride.
The driver traveled fast in the back roads through the villages, and flew over pot-holes and rocks on the road. With each bump my body flew off the seat and landed swiftly back hard on my sacrum. There was nowhere on the bus that seemed safe from the jolts, and with each hard landing back to my seat I started to wonder if I would ever feel my legs again.
To make the journey even less joyful, a local man seemed to find me fascinating. So much so he stared at me incessantly for 7 straight hours. I am no longer a youthful woman, so the attention of a man can be quite flattering. Whilst I never felt physically threatened, this was not flattering or appealing in any way whatsoever. It was creepy and quite disturbing.
As the bus wasn’t full, this man took the opportunity to experience a 360 degree view of me, by changing his seat at least 5 times over the course of the journey. Each time, never taking his eyes off me. There was nowhere to hide.
Finally the bus came to halt, and I tried to gather my things so I could swiftly leave the bus. However the ride had left me so damaged, it took several minutes for me to be able to stand up straight and consider putting my pack on my back.
For now, I will plan my journeys around the train timetables, at least until these bus trips are just a distant memory.