The decision was made. It was not my decision and I was not getting my way. Not this time. It was pre-dawn when we met in the dark and quiet beach-front restaurant, ready to begin our journey to the next destination. My backpack was heavy and the damp, warm air already unforgiving.
There was an overriding feeling of lethargy and unwillingness from my side. Nine hours in a municipal bus stood between us and the next town of our choice. I had no illusions of this being pleasant, I knew treachery lay ahead. This was India after all.
As we walked along the beach at 6am I wondered if our pre-arranged tuk-tuk would indeed be there to meet us. The bus I so dreaded taking was leaving at 7 am and the isolated beach we’d called home for the past week was a good distance from it. I secretly hoped he’d be a no-show. Then I could take my night bus in peace.
The bus was empty to begin with. Each of us spreading out selfishly, hogging entire benches to ourselves. How naïve of me to think it would stay that way. It was a long distance journey but we picked folks up and dropped them off a little further along. School goers freshly washed and ready to be educated hopped off somewhere along the winding road that took us upwards and away from the coast. We climbed for ages through the forest and in hindsight, never come back down.
2 hours and 80 kms into the trip we stopped for breakfast. I was hungry but worried about consuming something that would make me sick. Food poisoningis my biggest concern in India and being stuck in transit with it would be my worst nightmare come true. But as if safety in numbers is a thing in such situations, I followed the lead of my companions and we scoffed down a delicious traditional breakfast at that rural road side restaurant.
As the road evened out, the vegetation began to change. We were no longer coastal and the further inland we got the drier things became. The drier things became the hotter it got and the hotter it got the fuller the bus grew. There’s not much order in India. But of course in this situation the bus filled up slowly but surely, starting in the front, people occupying benches until they were full rather than picking half empty ones in the back.
My luxurious private bench was soon occupied by two others. We were three and we were closer than the average strangers should be to one another. Swapping sweat from one clammy arm to another as we sat together, almost on top of each other. A sideways glance every now and again from my neighbour, drinking in my foreign features.
“Canada?” an Indian woman asked me. What a random guess at my nationality I thought to myself. “Me? Canada?” I asked her, confused. “No”. As it turns out it my answer was correct. Not only because I was not and never have been Canadian, but also because I did not speak the local dialect -Kannada- which is what she was actually asking me. With each kilometrewe travelled deeper and deeper into the state of Karnataka, home to state capital Bangalore and our next destination- Hampi.
The stretch between breakfast and lunch stops seemed to go on forever. Not that I was hungry, rather desperate for some relief from the never ending bumpiness and the constant stopping and starting that filled the bus past its max pax. I was also on the verge of fishing out my earplugs to drown out the persistent honking.
The horn on any one motor vehicle in India is used to its full potential, largely because a good amount of time is spent on the wrong side of the road. Overtaking, avoiding pedestrians and cows or simply dodging that piece of tarmac which no longer exists. In those moments, where the bus got fuller, the temperature hotter and the horn blowing increasingly relentless, I had never hated anything more than bus travel in India.
Lunch came and went with time only to cross my fingers and devour the best and cheapest Thali to date before hopping back on the rickety honking machine. I slid back into my spot next to the window and we continued on our way. The bus driver showed signs of annoyance at my ETA related question. “I told you 4 o’clock”. Yes, but how was I to know that in all the chaos there was actually a schedule being kept.
True to his word we pulled into our final destination more or less around the time he had given. My bottle filled with a virtually boiling drinking substance that looked and smelled a lot like water. My lips dry, for what would be days after arrival, from 9 hours of hot wind on my face. My hair a dusty and tangled mess. But we were there, and that was something. It had been 2 against 1, me being the only girl and person objecting to the journey we had just undertaken.
But I was glad for it. Not for the cracked lips and headache but for the opportunity to have seen parts of India that I otherwise never would have. A jungle of disaster in the desert. An everlasting trail of litter that covered the Earth’s surface, the roads free from rules and often tar. The apparent overpopulation of people and the reality they were familiar with. A reality so far from yours or mine.
This journey was not unlike going school. It was a chore, something one doesn’t want to but has to do. And then there’s the educational value. The opening of the eyes to see what you have never seen before, what you don’t necessarily want to see and what you should be grateful for not having to call your reality.
It was good to be back in a tourist town. As much as I’m an advocate for ‘off the beaten track’, in India there’s reason to stay on it.