I truly thought that when we got to Charlie's agency the hard times would be over, at least for the time being. But, oh no, not for me… When we bought the tickets, Charlie said that a fancy bus would be waiting to pick us up. What he didn't say was that the bus would wait 3 miles away from the agency – and we would have to go there by foot – while carrying all of our luggage ourselves.
We started walking to the bus with a group of other backpackers. Charlie’s workers led us through busy streets that were wet and slippery from the monsoon showers that had fallen earlier. Even after the rain and with a grayish looking sky, it was still hot and humid. I thought I was going to collapse from the weight of my backpack.
“Don’t worry about me, save yourselves!” I imagined myself shouting to the girls in case my legs gave up and I found myself curled in a fetal position in the middle of the road.
Leave no man behind! unless you’re going to be late for the bus.
Somehow, I managed to drag myself all the way to that darned bus. Charlie had promised it would be a Volvo, but it probably wasn’t. They have this habit in India of promising you a certain style of transportation, most likely a fancy one, and they even show you photos of your magnificent ride, but in the moment of truth it usually turns out to be a wreck.
It might sounds silly to care about the type of vehicle that was just going to take you from point A to point B in a country like India, especially if you are a ‘tight budget backpacker,’ but believe me, when you have a 10-20 hour ride ahead of you - you care.
At that particular point of emotional and physical exhaustion, I couldn’t care less even if they took us by piggyback. But keep this piece of information in mind, because I will get back to it later on in another part of my story.
Back at our questionable Volvo bus, Charlie’s workers started loading its trunk with all of our backpacks. Naturally, mine was the last one to be loaded, right next to a collection of brand new suitcases and one motorcycle that the Indians dropped in at other stops along our way just so I can be worried sick all the way to Manali and pray that my backpack is still onboard. I don’t even know how they were able to shove all that stuff into that small trunk, but, as they say, Anything is possible in India.
After the loading was done, the porter and his manager started to demand ten rupees from each of us. “What?! Charlie didn’t mentioned this. I’m not paying you a dime!” one of the girls yelled and made all the rest of us shake off the befuddled looks and join the whining choir. Of course we paid, eventually. Go mess with the guy who’s in charge of all your luggage for the next twelve hours. See what you take out of the boot.
At that time, the only people I knew were Sharon and the girl with the names issue. They set next to each other on the bus, and so did all the other backpackers. I had to sit alone, which was totally fine by me. I had the whole bench to myself - great for sleeping through the ride. Or so I thought.
The bus started moving, and I was relieved. We were finally leaving Delhi, the bus was almost empty, and everything was going fine. Five minutes later the bus stopped again. ‘What now?” I wondered.
Suddenly some Indians started boarding the bus, and after them some more, and more, and more. I was hoping there would be enough space so I could still have the bench all to myself. So I did the selfish thing and put my small bag on the other seat (don’t give me that look, you’ve all done it at some point or other).
No one asked to sit next to me, and I thought it was going to stay that way. Then the usher tapped my arm and said, “They sit with you,” and pointed to a group of five children. I was slightly alarmed. I couldn’t see myself sitting with five other people, even if they were small, in a bench that was meant for two. Not even for a minute.
So in the most tactless way imaginable - a quality in which I excel, unfortunately - I yelled in front of the entire bus (including the children’s parents): “You don’t sit me next to Indian children!”
First, it's important for me to emphasize that I - am - not - a - racist. I do not want to sit next to five children on a bus, no matter what their nationality is.
Second, it’s amazing how bad your English can get in a foreign country when you really want to send the message. Suddenly you find yourself speaking in a one syllable words, without any grammatical construction. ‘Me - go - you. You - go - me, yes? ’ (When you’re totally lost and trying to explain to a Korean girl that you saw on your bus why you are following her to the bathroom. But that’s a completely different story.)
Since the usher saw I wasn’t going to back down, he turned to the bench behind me and said the same thing. As I turned my head to see the usher’s new victim, I saw another backpacker sitting alone.
‘What an idiot!’ I thought to myself. ‘He’s been watching this for the last ten minutes and couldn't say anything?!’
“Do you want to come and sit with me so that the children would have a bench for themselves?” I asked him, in a slow and steady tone, the way you would ask a six year old.
From his lukewarm response it looked like he preferred to sit with five children on his lap than to sit next to me. After he finally moved himself to my bench, I discovered that his name was Joel and that he was an attorney from Los Angeles. That’s about all he said, as he didn’t talk much and got off the bus every time we stopped to go smoke some charas with the Indians.
The drive was pretty calm. The bus was packed with a bunch of us backpackers and a million Indians. In every stop Indians would come from the streets and try to sell us unfamiliar candies and local food. I only ate crackers and dried fruits I had brought from home, still avoiding local cuisine to prevent any unfortunate accidents.
During the drive the bus stopped a lot for breaks, even more than I had wanted. It seemed like there was no way an Indian would miss a meal or a chance to just take a break. I kept reminding myself that we were on ‘Indian time,’ which was actually nice because in the Western world we tend to forget to just stop for a moment and catch our breath. Another conclusion I had about Indians is that they really like to clean vehicle windows. At every stop. At every break.
The view (from the really clean windows) was breathtaking. As we were going higher and higher on our way to the mountains, we crawled along some very dangerous roads that wound along very steep hillsides and atop sheer cliffs. Since most of the roads were only the width of a single vehicle, the bus had to drive far too close to the edge most of the time.
I remembered that just a couple of days before my flight, a tourist bus had fallen from a cliff on the drive from Delhi to Manali, killing all the people on board. I wasn’t able to sleep the entire ride, knowing we were driving on the exact same route.
I was scared and excited and thousands thoughts went through my head. I hoped this new place would be as good as they say. I couldn't handle another Delhi.
If it turned out to be another tiring city it might be the end of the trip for me. Whatever was in store, ‘Manali, here I come!’