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.”
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
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
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.
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.