Oh, What a Night

It was our India moment. You know, the kind of travel moment when you’re on a trip and you think to yourself, “Now this is why I came here.”

Gateway of India - Mumbai, India
Leaving Mumbai…

No, we weren’t sipping masala tea and eating chicken tikka while admiring the image of the Taj Mahal in its reflecting pool. Rather, we were tucked into the sticky folds and the dingy creases of an uncontrived real-life Indian experience.

It was awful; it was amazing. Maybe not amazing, but eye-opening. Uncomfortable, certainly.

Most of all, we wondered how on Earth our overnight Indian tourist sleeper bus transformed into a chicken bus stuffed to the gills with what seemed like a crowd of refugees.

Not Our Day

We missed our train from Mumbai (Bombay) to Udaipur by minutes. Then, we missed the direct bus by a similar margin. We were having a traveler’s day from Hell.

The private bus agent offered us the next available option: a sleeper bus headed in the direction of – but not directly to – Udaipur. The bus would drop us at a dusty spot on the side of the road about 100 kilometers short of Udaipur.

“No problem,” he assured us.

But these were tomorrow’s problems.

5:30 PM – Bus Dustbin

“Wow, this isn’t too bad,” I offered as Audrey climbed into our two-person upper bunk sleeping compartment. The choking cloud of dust released by the seat cushions seemed to indicate otherwise.

If these cushions could tell stories, I thought to himself as he appreciated their vintage. A close inspection of their mock velour revealed a scent and texture evocative of rancid raw dough that had been standing too long.

What our two-person bread box lacked in cleanliness would not be offset by its capacity: our compartment might fit two lean and stubby bodies supine. With our backpacks forced against the bulkhead, we would be squeezed into Indian squats and fetal positions for the duration of the journey.

6:15 P.M. – Watching Mumbai Go By

Busy Mumbai - Mumbai, India
Watching Mumbai go by from our bus window.

Complaints of hygiene and space aside, our upper deck compartment afforded us an exceptional moving vantage point from which to observe Mumbai life – above the fray, the dirt, and the din.

We exchanged waves and smiles from families on motorbikes. We made brief connections with kids playing in the streets. Truck drivers waved to us and we waved back. This was kind of fun.

All the while, Mumbai life across its many social strata unfolded before us. The relative order of Mumbai’s Victoria Station and Fort neighborhoods where we had spent the previous two nights quickly dissolved in our rear view. The further we progressed in our 2+hour release from Mumbai’s orbit, the more slums dotted the canvas. Subterranean, sub-highway, or cliffside and awaiting the next monsoon to collapse, ramshackle shanty networks were spackled across the landscape in plain view.

Lean-to settlements and chic modern mall sprawl – the extremes of Indian poverty and wealth – were starkly juxtaposed in the same blink. Slums flanked by billboards advertising luxury high-rise living units and gated communities cast the perverse irony and conflict of India’s emerging modern age in sharp relief.

Trickle down economics wasn’t working very quickly here either.

7:15 PM – The Fringe of Mumbai

Outskirts of Mumbai  - Mumbai, India
On the outskirts of Mumbai.

Already over 90 minutes on the road and we hadn’t yet reached Mumbai’s edge. We stopped under a bridge at a makeshift bus depot drawn in the dirt. Cows and cowpies outnumbered beggars, beggars outnumbered hawkers and hawkers outnumbered travelers.

Hawkers attempted to snare our attention by hissing and making kissing noises at us. We didn’t take this personally – they did it indiscriminately. And we didn’t care, for we were on the upper deck.

We were loaded with supplies and needed nothing more, except for maybe a bathroom…something we wouldn’t get for another 16 hours.

8:15 PM – The 100-Person Pile-On

A small but raucous army of passengers seemed to hijack the bus at once. Their boarding was accompanied by barking in frantic tones and a fast-paced tongue. It was dark and we had been waiting at this underpass for almost an hour; something didn’t feel right.

Thanks to the opportunistic bus driver, our private (i.e., not government-run) bus had morphed from a vaguely organized summer camp for locals into a frenzied squatter camp on wheels.

The mob was tattered and dirty. A family of 10 – mothers with babies and children in rags – romped into an upper bunk sleeper adjacent to us. Audrey peered down into a sea of darkness that was punctuated by eyeballs fixed with hard stares. Not rude – just tired, blank, curious, and confused.

Audrey drew the curtain. I whistled to himself the refrain of Tom Petty’s Refugee.

They weren’t refugees, but when they poured onto the bus frantic and quarreling – and with their worldly possessions on their backs, their clothes in tatters and their children in tow – they certainly seemed to match the images of refugees on international newsreels.

A few minutes later, a relative silence settled throughout the bus. Audrey peeked out. In the aisle, the roughly 40 castaways were curled up and asleep with their saris and t-shirts pulled overhead as sheets and blankets. From our upper bunk vantage point, they appeared like sacks of vegetables at the local market: cramped and layered in an organized chaos only those closely involved would ever understand. Bodies were head-to-toe the length of the aisle; not an inch of floor space remained.

We drew the curtain and closed the inner window of our compartment, shutting ourselves off in our 4×6 foot sanctuary of relative peace and quiet.

That is, until the bus started to move again…

12:15 AM – India Off-Road

Just when the final stage of “Worst Roads on the Planet” is being duked out between Tajikistan and Burma, India makes a last-ditch effort with its Mumbai-Ahmedabad national road project.

The all-night obstacle course went something like this: tight turn left, slam on brakes; tight turn right, slam on brakes; repeat.

This pattern, punctuated by the occasional gear-grinding lurch, conveyed the feeling that our bus was being dragged by a crane through a field of boulders.

Though our cabin literally squealed in pain from the cruelty of the roads and the burden of everything lashed atop the bus, we eventually drifted back to a half-sleep, our noses and knees in close proximity.

3:15 AM – Name That Stench

The ersatz fresh air (the kind that leaves your nostrils black) was replaced by a warm, smothering blanket of apocalyptic stench.

In a fit of half-sleep, I wondered whether he’d died and slipped into the land of stranded souls and rotting corpses. Every visit to India must involve at least one mystical, otherworldly moment after all.

The smells were so powerful and occurred in horrifying combinations that don’t belong to this universe: phosphorescent farts meeting rotting cabbage, vicious latrines playing host to heaping piles of decaying flesh.

I rolled over a centimeter to meet Audrey’s eyes.

Me: “Do you smell that? It smells like our bus fell into a latrine. New game show: ‘Name That Stench’”

Audrey: “I thought bodies were decomposing. Maybe the local Buddhists had a massive sky burial nearby and the vultures haven’t found the bodies yet.”

We were afraid to look out the window.

The crane wasn’t just dragging our bus through a boulder field, but through the sum total of South Asia’s sewage flows, the confluence of which had penetrated our delicate sleep and befouled our dreams.

5:15 AM – One Rooster Too Many

A rooster began to crow.

Keep in mind that there was no previous indication of fowl aboard, we were half asleep and we were certain that we were aboard a bus.

Rooster crows again.

It’s confirmed: there’s a cock and he’s doodle-doing, loud and clear. Sounds like he’s in the compartment with us.

We looked around. No rooster on top of our backpacks.

Rooster crows again.

We can’t tell if he’s tied on top of the bus, stuffed into a bag on the floor, or crammed in the compartment next to us with the other 10 people.

Rooster crows again.

This was not a dream. This was torture.

6:15 AM – Brand New Day

The one-cock chorus was joined by children’s voices and laughter. Cheerful morning chatter replaced the frantic squabbles of the previous night. Breakfast pots clanged on the floor.

Is that a fire in the middle of the aisle? Rooster for breakfast, perhaps?

Nope. The rooster crows again.

7:15 AM – Getting the Load Out

On the outskirts of Ahmedabad, the bus disgorged the horde and their stuff – bags, pots, kids, rooster and all.

We wondered again: How did all those people fit on the floor?

We have no idea what became of the stowaways. For them, their journey was probably rather normal. Perhaps they were returning home to their village for some celebration, festival, wedding or funeral.

We, on the other hand, had the night of our lives – or, at least, one that we won’t soon forget.

Life Rolls On

The next few hours featured us drifting in and out of a less fitful sleep as we admired the emerging landscape of the Indian state of Rajasthan, with its camel carts, cow herds, smallholder farm plots and desert hills.

As promised, we were discharged in the middle of nowhere, at a dusty roadside.

Disappointingly, but not unexpectedly, there wasn’t a bus in sight. As the morning wore on and the sun grew stronger, we were due for a turn of fortune.

We hitched the remainder of the way to Udaipur and eventually flagged down a brand new car headed our way.

Udaipur Hotel Suite - Udaipur, India
A beautiful place to rest our heads in Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Note: We wrote this in repose from the comfort of our balcony overlooking Lake Pichola and the Udaipur Lake Palace. This is where we recovered from our journey.

How circumstances can change in such a short time.

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Comments

  1. Pete De Ritter says

    Sounds like an interesting bus trip.
    Should be an interesting transition going from the lakes of Udaipur to the desert of Bikaner. Are you going to be milking the camels in Bikaner?
    I took my first steps since January 15 this past Friday. Leg was a little wobbly but strength is already returning. Now I can start “measuring the earth with my feet” again.
    I was thinking of your grandfather this week. There was a news story about a guy in West Michigan who thought he was drinking whiskey but someone had put Drano in the bottle. He’s probably going to need esophagus reconstruction like the operations Dr. Scott did in Korea.
    I’ve got your feed on my home page so I can check for posts whenever I log on. Keep the stories coming.
    Hope your travels go well.

  2. says

    What an amazing journey, and great story to read from the comfort of my cupochino and easy chair. I envy you both at times, but I’m glad I know where my buses are going.
    Keep the great stories coming!
    -Suz

  3. says

    “Worst Roads on the Planet” vs. “Name That Stench”

    At this moment, The Travel Channel is readying for a bidding war on these two concepts. Be ready for it.

  4. Wave says

    At least you didn’t have to go to the bathroom. Most who take the locals bus end up with some type of horrid…..”and that’s not the worse but there’s no bathroom and my tummy is starting to rumble” stoy….

  5. Vikramjit says

    Dear D&A,
    Hope you like the nick name, i gave you, i visualised the D&A travel books, which is a distinct possibility, you both make a great team. As a fellow writer, i can only marvel at your observations, an paitence to combined backpacking, with commited realistic story telling, day after day. Also i cant desist from pointing out that at times we have to curb the urge to relate every thing we experience, you see readers by nature want to follow suit, thats when comparisons to own experiences start, and wild said all comparisons are odious. Godspeed and Warm regards

  6. says

    Pete, it certainly was an experience. The bus trip from Udaipur to Bikaner was almost as uncomfortable (more roads competing for the “Worst Roads in the World” competition), but not the same level of activity and color.

    Bikaner’s old town was a beautiful collection of old haveli (grand) houses, windy, narrow streets, small shops and friendly people. We stayed in the only guest house in the old town and it really made our visit.

    Glad to hear you are starting to take some steps. Such a tragic story about the drano. Can’t even imagine…

  7. says

    Suz: Cappuccinos and easy chairs – what are those?

    We typically know where our buses are going. The problem is often if and how they will get there.

    Nicole: We seem to have collected ample experience in the stink detection department, so we’ll flesh out the “Name That Stench” concept this summer.

    “Worst Roads” may have to wait until we visit the other continents.

    Thanks for the Happy 500th…we didn’t even realize it ourselves.

    Wave: We have “stopper” pills tucked into our money belts for such occasions. And plastic bags handy. The windows were fairly large so it’s conceivable that we could have jettisoned our digestive ballast that way as well.

    Circumstances could always be much worse…like our bus could have been hijacked by armed bandits.

  8. Tim Saunders says

    Wow…500 days…amazing…you both have a wonderful way of not only helping readers see what you are seeing, but taste and smell, too. Best wishes to you both,

    Tim

  9. sonia says

    HI D&A.THIS IS SONIA HERE.WE MET AT CHANDIGARH.HOPE YOU REMEMBER ME.I READ UR COMMENTS ON OH WAT A NIGHT!IT WAS REALLY TOO DIFFICULT FOR U PEOPLE IN INDIA.HOPE NOT IN CHANDIGARH.HAVE HAPPY JOURNEY.

  10. says

    Vikramjit: Thank you for the compliments…and our conversations.

    True, there is a fine line between sharing and “over-sharing” an experience. We have to draw this line constantly, as I’m sure you are aware from what we’ve written. We reserve many experiences to share later in a different context or merely for ourselves and our diaries. But it’s important to leave enough lines on the page for the reader to read between.

    We also have to draw distinctions when making observations that appear negative. Passing judgment is easy; relating events and circumstances in challenging contexts is not. We rarely intend to cast aspersions. We simply hope to share the moment and our feelings, particularly with readers unfamiliar with the places we’ve been and the modes of travel we’ve chosen.

    The true measure of any experience is to ask, “Would we do it over again, exactly with the same level of discomfort and uncertainty?” In this case – and in many others along our journey – we would answer “Yes,” for these experiences help form and inform who we are and our view of the world.

    Tim: Thanks for the well-wishes, and the compliments.

  11. says

    Sonia: Yes, our visit to Chandigarh was really a pleasure, not just because of the place but because of the great people we met there! I just sent you some photos by email from our visit. Thanks for your wishes for our safe travels and hope we meet again!

  12. says

    We are trying to book a train, bus, anything to Udaipur right now. And your site came up in our search…Too cool. Traveling India is very frustrating. It is not the people, the garbage, the crazy drivers or anything like that, that is getting to us, it is the fact that we can’t get anywhere. We are always trapped with no way out of a place. We went to the train station today, Dec 23rd to book for Dec 27th…no room and 30+ wait list. Can’t make online booking work and we are trying to figure out how to book a bus with no luck. Ahh, India:)

  13. says

    @Dave and Deb: I’m not sure if this information will help, but we called National Travel (23015652) for a bus to Udaipur from Mumbai and just gave the cell phone to the taxi driver to get the correct departure address. The bus company guy had promised to hold the direct bus for us, but when we arrived he claimed he couldn’t hold it any longer so that is why we had this quasi-direct bus. We were desperate at that point, so we took it. I believe there were several bus companies there, so you could shop around. You can pay a bit more for an A/C bus, which might be worth it.

    We made good use of the online booking for trains (it accepted our US credit card), but we essentially had to plan our 2 months of India travel and what trains we needed when we first arrived because trains fill up very quickly. Even months in advance, some trains were booked. On the one hand, it limited our flexibility a bit. But, on the other hand, it kept us to a schedule…otherwise we might still be in India :)

    Good luck and enjoy Udaipur! It has one of our favorite markets in the whole world.

  14. says

    That is what we are going to start doing now. We sat down yesterday to plan a new route and we figured out how to make our card work, so we booked our first train online! Yeah! Thanks for the information, you are the best.

  15. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    This is such an interesting article! I am not at all surprised by 100 people getting onto a bus in the middle of nowhere (Mumbai suburb). This happens on trains as well, but you (Dan and Audrey) probably know that already.

  16. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Audrey, a travel book with all these experiences would (in my opinion) make for a great travel book. I am sure you have a lot more experiences like these to share. I am actually going through your archives…

  17. says

    Hi,

    I can’t stop laughing your post and I am surely gonna read all of them…

    Well being an Indian I know how you must have felt and that ‘out of place’ feeling must have surrounded you. :)

    But I think the end feeling and experience is whole new.

    Look forward to you visit to India again….and If you do come again feel free to call me at 9990034566 for any kinda help. I am based in New Delhi.

  18. says

    @Sutapa: I thought we had responded earlier. To write a book (or two) about our experiences — it’s definitely on the wish list.

    @Atul: Thanks. We’ll be sure to give you a ring next time we’re in New Delhi. Glad this piece made you laugh. That bus was something else to rival all my India experiences, except perhaps the train I took during my first visit back in 1997. That one is getting it’s own article one of these days. Stay tuned!

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