Our bus is due to leave at 3.00 p.m. so we have made sure to arrive early, around 3.00 p.m. We inquire of the bus. “Ah!”, says one worthy, “This bus will leave later!”
“When?” I ask.
“Maybe 4.00 o’clock, not before!”
Assured by several others that this is so, we settle back to wait, on the side of this dusty back-street which purports to be a bus station.
Within minutes of our arrival, we are surrounded by throngs of the curious. A kindly old man with piercing eyes and a long white beard, and the whitest teeth I have ever seen outside Hollywood, strikes up a conversation with us. He is evidently an expert on all the bus time-tables for Southern India.
“Ah! So – you go to Trichur? Yes, this bus will leave at 4.00 p.m. Cost? 400 Rupees! Via Mangalore and Calicut. There is also, you know, a bus to Trivandrum. Cost? 450 Rupees! Departing 3.40 p.m….”
About a dozen youngsters vie to sell us semi-cold soft drinks, all unsuccessfully. But, in spite of our firm refusals, they remain friendly and grin continually at the sight of these two luggage-laden Westerners, sitting in the scorching afternoon sun, awaiting the bus to Trichur. One or two child-beggars benefit handsomely from our presence until a gentleman who has appointed himself ‘Station Master’, for our benefit, firmly instructs us “No tip please!”
Finally, around 3.40 p.m., the Saudi Tours coach from Shree Krishna Travels comes screeching down the road, scattering shouting people in its path, and grinds to a halt. We pass our bags to the porter for positioning on the roof rack and linger to ensure they are tied down and covered. Several onlookers immediately demand ‘tips’ for vague and imaginary services.
Our reserved seats, 25 and 26, are already occupied, so an authoritative official tells us to sit elsewhere. Some minutes later, the same, perplexed official, orders us to seats 25 and 26 and evicts the former occupants.
And so, finally, at 3.55 p.m., some 5 minutes before scheduled departure, or 25 minutes late if our tickets are to be believed, we set off, laboriously weaving our way in and out of the dense Saturday afternoon Bombay traffic.
After about a quarter of an hour, whilst the bus is stopped in a heavy traffic jam, a familiar face appears at our window. It is the friendly time-table expert with the whiter-than-white teeth. He continues chatting as if we had been doing so continuously since we last met. “Ah, yes, Kerala is very beautiful. And where will you go after Trichur? Cochin? Ah, yes, there is a bus directly from Trichur to Cochin, it leaves at 4.50 p.m. ” And, as this kindly gentleman sets about describing Kerala’s bus transport system, we at last start moving again and head south to the outskirts of the city and, beyond, the Maharashtra countryside.
We look around at our fellow passengers. They are all, either directly or surreptitiously, staring at us, a combination of incredulity and amusement. We are the only non-Indians aboard and Rachelle, with her very white skin, is the particular focus of attention.
To our right is a gentleman from Calicut. He has strange eyes, one half-closed and looking in a different direction to the other, and each time I look at him, the eye on which I focus appears to be staring elsewhere, although he is speaking to me. I finally concede and concentrate on his nose whenever we speak. I offer him a Benson and Hedges cigarette which he accepts with delight. At once, half a dozen curious neighbours lean forward, smelling, sniffing and inspecting the cigarette. I hand them around and there are murmurs of approval and later I am rewarded with a packet of Beedi’s. As I smoke the first one, several pairs of eyes watch closely, doubtless awaiting a reaction of spluttering and disgust. But neither come, and there are approving smiles as I finish the foul-tasting smoke without incident.
And so the bus thunders into the night, past the old Raj town of Pune and, with some difficulty, I attempt to sleep.
As the first snores of the travellers’ indicate the onset of night, an elderly Muslim cleric in the adjoining seat decides to say his prayers – very loudly, and sublimely oblivious to the stares of his Western neighbours. His singing ritual is soon accompanied by the sounds of several passengers spitting and retching out of the windows. The chorus of twenty people attempting to vomit in tune with a septuagenarian zealot at prayer is interesting. And, so, the band plays on and Shree Krishna’s bus thunders south into the Indian night.
It is a fitful night, interrupted many times by the collision of Rachelle’s head against mine, and the continual sounds of retching. But, as dawn breaks, we find ourselves deep in rural India, in the Western Ghats.
We stop for breakfast at 7.00 a.m. The meal is watery Dhal vegetable curry and chappatis, washed down with sweet chai. 22 Pence each. On the pavement, such as it is, our fellow passengers scrub their teeth, adjust their dhotis and spit profusely to rid themselves of the night’s ills.
Our bottoms are, by this time, extremely sore. I note that our tickets describe this bus as a “Laxury Service” and decide that I could not have better described it myself.
For most of the day, I feel positively ill as a result of the shock to my system – the arrival in India after Europe, and the continual pounding of my internal organs on rough Indian roads for several hours.
At 3.00 p.m., our friend with the funny eyes disembarks at Mangalore, having exchanged addresses and assured us of a fine time should we ever decide to visit him in his home town of Calicut. He adds, in a low whisper, and looking furtively about him should anyone hear him, that he can also offer us some excellent ganja. After seeing his eyes, I decide that it would be best to ignore this offer.
And so, we continue south, 24 hours into our journey, and now passing through the colourful countryside of Karnataka and northern Kerala. Our driver drives like a crazed man, a possessed demon, and several times I am hurled into the air as the rear wheels pass over some destruction in the road. I feel as if I have been strapped to the side of an electric drill.
By 10.00 p.m., we are stopping with regular monotony. Occasionally, passengers clamber off with their bags, but, more often than not, we stop for no discernible reason. On occasions, one of the passengers beckons me and instructs me to ‘go for food’ and I, in turn, politely decline, wishing only to reach our destination.
By 11.00 p.m. there are fewer than a dozen passengers on board and there is much shouting taking place in the front of the bus. I assume that it is simply the 7th food stop of the evening. But then, a delegation of two cadaverous gentlemen approaches us.
“Excuse me, Sir, but we have problem! Bus driver does not want to go further. Trichur is 100 kilometres more. Company wants to put us in taxi for remainder of trip.”
“Well,” I say, “As long as they pay for the taxi, don’t you think that would be a good idea? After all, we’ve been travelling for 31 hours now and, to be quite honest, I’d just like to get there…”
“No, Sir. That is not problem. Problem is that we have paid for ticket to Trichur. Now, bus company wants to make money. This is not good. We others are refusing to get off. You are tourist and have much weight. They will respect you. We ask you, please Sir, support us. When they ask you to take taxi, please tell them ‘No!’ Stick by us and let us show them!”
“OK”, I smile, “Why not? I agree – we’ve paid for our tickets, and they have to take us all the way!”
After 15 minutes, the bus continues on its way, the furious driver accelerating wildly through deep pot-holes. After five minutes, we again grind to a halt. After more incomprehensible shouting, the English-speaking delegation approaches once again. “Sir – there will be trouble! Maybe Police will come! Bus company will play some tricky! We think they will arrange for breakdown of bus so that we are forced to take taxi. Please, we beg you, do not get off bus”.
I nod my understanding and agreement and the delegation returns to the front of the bus for more shouting and a take-away curry which has suddenly appeared through a window. We set off once again but, this time, with two taxis in hot pursuit, evidently preparing themselves for an intended breakdown.
Fortunately, after several more stops and more shouting, the taxis disappear and the bus driver agrees to continue to our destination, though he exacts his retribution by driving at break-neck speed, narrowly avoiding collision on several occasions. We are all thoroughly relieved when, at 1.30 a.m., after some 33.5 hours on the road, we arrive at Trichur, uninjured but somewhat shaky.
We at once take a trishaw to the Elite International Hotel where, for around $ 7, we secure a double room with air conditioning and breakfast. The night Manager, sensing our ordeal, sends coffee and sandwiches to our room at 2.00 a.m.