Dispatches from the Road: On the Bus

by Dore Ann Mendelsberg

Dore Ann Mendelsberg is on an epic journey around the world, with only a vague itinerary and no set end date. She is periodically sending in dispatches of her adventures.  This is her latest, coming from India.

Bus travel in India is less a form of public transport and more some kind of sport, possibly a distant cousin of the rodeo.  The amateur stage is less about skill or brute strength than endurance.  On long distance journeys you can be fairly sure you’ll get a (often cramped) seat however hurtling down moderately maintained one-and-a-half lane roads navigating the unregulated junctions at spontaneously-appearing ubiquitously-mobbed town centres and the rollercoaster curves, forks and bends in between, in a roaring ramshackle vehicle of questionable age and dubious suspension, the problem is staying in it. Remaining alert to the sudden stops, swerves and bumps that could propel you in any direction (your fellow passengers being the safest of crash pads) requires constant vigilance.

After the seventh hour (bathroom breaks?  ha!  provisions?  passed through the window at bigger stops… good luck eating them) crammed into a notionally cushioned vinyl seat with a driver who seems believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that the unrelenting use of the fog horn mysteriously attached, it seems, *inside* the bus’s carriage has the magic ability to make other cars disappear, while he overtakes rickshaws on blind corners and grinds the gears in a perpetual stop/go yes/no motion, remaining sane requires herculean mental fortitude.

The professional stage of Indian bus travel is over shorter distances.  Newcomers might confuse this with a lessened degree of difficulty.  Newcomers would be very, very silly. The local services (pro), especially on busy routes (national) and increasingly during rush hour (international), redefine the concepts of “maximum capacity”, “personal space” and “helath and safety.”  Handholds on the labyrinth of rails lacerating the cabin are available only to contortionists and the freakishly long of limb.  The jerking stop-starting and technical shuffling of your teammates (sometimes opponents) render footholds secure for only seconds at a time.  Add to this the ticket collector whose passage through the sardine can-like aisle is guaranteed by his relentless Red Sea parting nudging ability, the fearsome banging on the sides of the bus by the door operators who clearly feel that their war cries at each stop are not motivation enough to ensure the speedy dismount of passengers and the 90 degree heat and you have an extreme sport empire in the making.

It is possible that I’m being melodramatic.  You’d be forgiven for thinking I was exaggerating for effect.  But actually I may just be drawing a vastly inappropriate analogy.  Maybe instead of a sport, bus travel in India is more like a dance.  Alien and intimidating when you don’t know the steps, sometimes exhausting at the end of the day, but wildly entertaining once you learn the rhythm. How else could you explain the endless assistance offered by every person noting our quizzical frowns or confused grimaces.  How else do you figure I’ve managed to cross roughly 300 miles on 10 different buses without every being able to read or accurately pronounce the names of my destinations.  How do you fit in the balletic grace of the conductors, swinging on and off in a fluid arc with the opening and closing of the doors or the shy smiles and curious enquiries of the other passengers on seeing a backpack-toting foreigner among them (“You from?” “How long in India?” “Where go?”).  Plus the pressure of organized sport brings back childhood trauma I prefer to leave buried.  Competitiveness, in a sporting context, is not in my nature.  But I do love to dance.  And I have yet to get off an Indian bus with a smile on my face.