Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Big, bad bus journeys

My mother should use disgression when reading this post. We're happy, healthy, and very safe! Don't worry!

"The bus is here!" Steve and I, and five other gringos who had been waiting for the bus in the hot, dusty dhaba, jumped to our feet, grabbed out packs, and walked toward the bus. When we rounded the corner, there was a chorus of groans as we realized that the bus was already packed - very packed. There weren't any seats left, which is usual, but the standing room in the aisle was jammed with bodies, and the luggage rack on top of the bus was already overflowing with bags, boxes of fruit and vegetables, baskets of baby chicks, and other misc items. One lone gringo was getting off the bus, but it looked as though everyone else was holding their ground inside. We thought for a moment about abandoning our plan to go to Tabo, but since there was little chance that tomorrow's bus would be less crowded, our only option was to try to sqeeze into the bus. Tabo was only about 60 km from the village we were in, but in India terms that equates to about.....4 hours. No kidding. Not that I would want the bus drivers to drive any faster than 15-20 kph - these are treacherous mountain roads, only semi-paved, barely narrow enough for a single vehicle going in a single direction at a time, and prone to landslides and rockfalls. I've been on sketchy bus rides before, but northern India takes the cake, I'd say.

Anyway, back to our trip. Steve somehow managed to tie our bags to the top of the bus, and I pushed into the front of the bus, and Steve to the back. Getting on to the bus is a task in itself - you can't just walk on, and expect the other passengers to make room for you. You have to shove your way on, ducking under elbows and over small children. I made it to the approximate middle of the bus, finaggled a hand-hold on the bar on the roof, braced my feet on both sides of the aisle (I've learned a wide stance is best to manage all of the twists and turns), and stood my ground, waiting for the bus driver to return and our trip to begin. The bus was hot, so I was sweating like mad, but after about 10 minutes of torture, the driver returned and started the engine. Then, much to my horror, I saw a pack of men approach the bus, and push their way on as well - they apparently were waiting until the last minute to board. I managed to maintain my foot and hand positioning, but now was pretty much spooning with the guy in front of me, had an elbow lodged in my back, and had to turn my head to the side in order to breathe. But, before I could protest, the driver stepped on the gas, and the bus began bumping its way down the road.

The road to Tabo climbs in steep switchbacks, then traverses across a mountain face before switchbacking tightly back down to the river and town. Sounds beautiful, right? Well, in actuality it's terrifying. Until last year, part of the road was destroyed by a landslide, so you drove to the site of the landslide, walked down to the bottom of the slide and back up to the road, where you got into another bus that would take you the rest of the way to Tabo. The road is fixed now, but the potential for deadly landslides remains. There were several places where chucks of the road had disappeared, leaving less than enough space for a big gangly bus to pass, which meant leaving the comfort of 4 wheels on several occasions. The bus driver and Indian passengers thought nothing of these sections, but all I could think of was the 1000+ meter drop to the raging river below. I've been told over and over again, by locals and travelers alike, that bus drivers up here are solid, know their buses well, and make these journeys frequently, so they should be trusted. But, when looking down at certain death, I found it pretty much impossible to trust them. Sure, the bus driver knows the road, but with every turn our bus would sway liberally back and forth due to the immense load on the roof and the heavy crowd of passengers inside. I purposely would try to swing my weight into the uphill side of the mountain around corners, but no one else seemed to follow my lead. I had my headphones in my ears, trying to drone out my terror with some good bluegrass, but the squealing brakes kept interrupting my attempts at calm. We'd just come from a Buddhist village, full of prayer flags and prayer wheels and an overwhelming sense of peace and serenity, but my attempts at chanting and deep breathing were failing me miserably as well. I thought of my dad's mantra of, "worrying doesn't do any good, so I don't worry about things", but it was difficult not to worry about my seemingly eminent death. It was miserable.

When we finally reached our destination, I was beat from the four hour adrenaline rush, but very happy to still be alive, and even happier that we never had to ride that stretch of road again. I managed a grateful nod toward the bus driver as I stepped off the bus, and walked to the back to find Steve. He popped off the bus, sweat dripping from his forehead, but with a smile on his face. "A lady in the back was handing out snap peas the whole way," he said triumphantly. "How was your ride?" he asked me. "Not so bad," I replied, trying to act brave, "but, let's stay in Nako for a couple of days before riding a bus again."


Robyn Newby said...

So 4 hours of fear adrenalin is fun, I thought people who jumped with bunger cords were crazy. Now I know it's the Rideouts that are crazy!! Be careful out there & I'm glad you put mom warnings on your posts. Robyn Newby

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the Mom warning was strong enough - I still got on and could read it! I think my definition of 'very safe' is different than yours. When you talk about leaving the comfort of 4 wheels does that mean you got out of the bus and walked or does that mean the bus had less than 4 wheels on the ground? Yikes!!!
Steve - remember this is my baby girl!


Kate said...

WOW! Gripping description. Glad you made it safely!!

bergbryce said...

Whoa. I need to be paying closer attention to your travels. This sounds intense and Steve's comment about snap peas was classic Steve. Way to diffuse the situation.

Hope you are having fun,