The bus ride from Pushkar to Ajmer will become an amusing travel story, an example of my courage and sense of adventure in this crazy country. But it’s too soon. I still feel shaky thinking about that 10-hour bus ride from hell.
Irit and I are scrambling to find a place to pee, stumbling down a dark hill, over rocks and mud, crouching in urine and shit-covered shadows, breathing through our mouths. Just as we are climbing back up the hill, we hear shouts that the bus to Ajmer has arrived.
We’d already been waiting for about forty minutes. Now there is panic, shouting, rushing and random Indian men telling us to Hurry! Hurry! Get on the bus! Give us your ticket!
We cross the road with our huge backpacks. Traffic is jammed bumper to bumper with massive semi-trailers, not moving, all hands pressed against their brain-crushing horns. Our bus joins the trucks with its own eerie horn, a piercing mixture of an ambulance siren, the trumpet of an elephant and a circus clown’s buzzer. Over and over again the horns blast, creating a noisy, panicky energy. We load our bags into the back of the bus. Just as we throw the last bag in, the bus slowly starts to roll away, with the trunk still open, our baggage inside. I’m crying out. “Is it going? Is it going? It’s going! Our bags! WAAAAIT!”
Ori sprints across the road, just as the monster trucks start moving in both directions. He’s darting in and out of traffic. My god, it’s so dangerous. I’m screaming “WAIT! WAIT! STOP!” The unfazed Indian men who are loading our bags calmly step out in front of the trucks, holding up their hands to stop the traffic so we can cross the road. I see our bus slowing down, parking on the other side of the road. I race over to Ori, stressed, relieved, crazed. We climb onto the bus.
It is dark and the ceiling is lined with garish carnival lights of red, green and yellow, flash flashing all night, like an underground disco gone terribly wrong. The seats are upright, thin and cracked – rickety seats that don’t even slide back, bits of metal poking out of the torn upholstery. Above the chairs, I see these glass coffins, sleeper berths that look so forbidding I shudder imagining myself inside them.
There are only four people on the bus. Two men are sleeping in our seats. After much discussion and confusion, they move. We sit. Someone comes and asks us for our tickets. We try and explain that the travel agent took our ticket while we were waiting for the bus. They shake their heads and ask again for our tickets. We explain again and resolutely decide we will not budge an inch from our seats. The man walks to the front of the bus and says something in Hindi to the driver. An argument breaks out. Angry indecipherable words are being hurled around, furious lyrics to the background of a screeching horn orchestra. We sit stiffly, hearts racing and prepare to be kicked off the bus.
Abruptly, the bus begins to move. I turn to see a shady-looking man sitting opposite and a few seats in front of us. He has a scarf wrapped around his head and face so that only his black eyes are visible. He’s staring straight at me. After a few moments, he shifts to a seat further back, closer to me, and continues to stare. He stares all the way.
The shrill sound of Hindi music blares out of tinny, ratty speakers, so loudly that we can hardly hear each other speak. The music is jaunty and jarring – never-ending, from the beginning of the ride to the very end.
The bus driver is a maniac, a psychopathic maniac who has no fear of death. He speeds up to 150 kilometres, swerving in and out of traffic, crashing over potholes and skidding over crumbling gravel, screeching on the brakes. With his palm permanently pressed against the wailing circus horn. I am sure I am going to die. We’re thrown to the right and tossed to the left, like a roller-coaster ride but without the comforting knowledge of safety. I’m gripping the handrails not to fall off the seat. It’s insanity. Sleep is beyond impossible. I’m too terrified to close my eyes.
Ori and I look at each other, he grimly, me wide-eyed with panic. So great is my fear that I stumble to the front and ask the driver to please, please slow down. I’m begging. It’s pathetic. I’m desperate. The men glance up and look away dismissively, another highly-strung westerner telling them what to do. The driver continues his manic race to death. I begin to pray.
Clutching Ori’s hand or arm or leg at every swerve, I pray. I ask God to protect us. I visualize a bubble of light around the bus, around Ori and I, around Irit and Itai, and around the bus driver. I call on the driver’s guides to make his driving steady, to keep him safe, to calm him down. I call on the angels of everyone on the bus to protect their human charges. I call on all the angels to work together to keep us safe and alive, on this bus ride from hell.
The man is still staring. I shift from one uncomfortable position to another. I don’t sleep at all. Everybody on the bus is dodgy, dangerous, frightening. The music and the horn blare on.
When we arrive, a hundred thousand years later, Irit realises her passport and wallet and other items from her bag are scattered all over the floor of the bus. Her money has been stolen. A fitting end to the journey.
We are at the hill station of Mount Abu.