Bus Ride from Hell

April 21st, 2011-

Once we were happy. We ate sunshine and optimism for breakfast. Then came the Bus Ride from Hell.

Here’s the story. We needed a bus from McLeod Ganj to Manali, a 10 hour overnight journey through the valleys of Himachal Pradesh. I asked around at many of the local private bus ticket sellers, but each was selling only tickets on “small buses”—i.e. 9- to 12-seater vans. As a skeptic of the 12-seater van and a happily grizzled veteran of the South American overnight big bus system (a wonderful system that actually grants one a chance at sleep), I held out for a big bus.

Finally I found a company offering a big bus: Akash Adventures. That I will forever damn this company is not important at this moment. But I will.

Akash said that the first Manali-bound big bus of the season was leaving on Thursday the 31st. He showed me the seating map, and yup, there were 40+ seats on this bus, and the seats pushed back, and we could have seats #11 & #12, right near the front. Fantastic.

That was five days ago. Fast forward to today. We walk to the bus terminal at 9pm and look for our bus. We spot two big buses hanging out in the parking lot and make a bee-line for them when a nearby Indian man asks us a one-word question: “Manali?”

“Yes, we’re going to Manali.”

“Oh okay, come over here.”

He leads us to—none other than—a tiny 12-seater van. I say, no, sorry, this isn’t right, we’re on a big bus. He looks at our ticket. Akash Adventures—yes, this is your bus. And you have seats 11 and 12. And naturally, in a 12-seater van, those are in the way back.

I call Akash on my cell phone. He says sorry, when there aren’t enough people to fill up a big bus, they put you on a small bus. I tell him that’s a terrible way to run a business—assuring me that I’ll get one kind of service and delivering another. So sorry, he says. Click.

Well, crap. We got screwed on this bus thing. But at least we had a bus. It wasn’t all that bad. Three British blokes and a French girl joined us, and it seemed that we’ve have plenty of room to stretch out on our ride to Manali. That’s when I took the above photo. When life was still good. When birds still chirped and babies still giggled.

9:40, time to go. This guy takes off like it’s the fucking grand prix. There’s hardly anyone else on the road—that’s why night buses are generally a good idea, you’re not stuck behind and endless procession of trucks, auto rickshaws, taxis, bikes, horse carts and cows—but the driver obviously has a family member in the hospital or a terrorist plot to foil or some other rational reason for driving like a stunt man from the Fast and Furious movies.

Brenna and I quickly realized the direness of our situation. We were in the back of a tiny bus (tiny enough to allow the driver to drive wildly) instead of the front of a big bus (which naturally must drive slowly) as we expected.

Within five minutes Brenna turns to me and calmly says, “I see vomiting in my not-too-distant future.”

Fortunately the French girl overheard Brenna and gave her a dramamine pill, and there was space for Brenna to move to the front. But then the van stops to pick up five more passengers. Now it’s packed. Brenna moves back to her assigned seat #11. Damn.

Off again we go, speeding down the winding mountain road from McLeod Ganj. The nausea returns. Brenna asks me if I think the cracked window next to us will provide enough space in case of vomiting. I say no, and that she should tell me if it’s going to happen and I’ll get the driver to stop. But by then it’s too late. Brenna’s got her hand over her mouth, a sickly pale look on her face, and starts making convulsive motions. I scramble for the closest bag-like object, and I find: my man-bag. I dump the contents into my lap—an iPad, notebook, and camera—and then hand her the bag, which she summarily consecrates with her vomitus.

I tell the van to pull over. We walk to the nearest ditch and decide to just leave the bag there. (While it was a stalwart Guatemalan man-bag, the zipper was broken, so I didn’t cry too much.) Before leaving we double check to ensure that no other valuables were left in the bag. We find one victim: my 1960 paperback copy of The Last of the Mohicans which I’d picked up in Arequipa, Peru. Sorry, James Fenimore Cooper. The book was good, but not puke-stained good.

Back on the bus. I demand that the bus driver put down the fold-up shotgun seat that’s in the front next to him. He accedes, and Brenna moves up there. I give her my Nalgene bottle in case she needs to puke again. And then I settle into seats number 11 and 12 for the long ride to Manali.

My rest of the ride is fairly uneventful from my perspective. The seats reclined slightly, and I manage to steal little snatches of sleep. But every bump or hard turn is an opportunity to knock me back into consciousness.

Around 1am we stop at a roadside restaurant and the driver disappears for roughly half an hour. Taking a power nap or amphetamines, perhaps. I’m pretty sure there are laws against bus drivers going so long in a single stretch in the United States. Regardless, at the bus stop I discover the Brenna had puked not once, but twice into my Nalgene. Poor girl. Being in front is helping her, but she’s still nauseous and certainly can’t sleep.

Back in the bus/van/torture chamber. Now for the next surprise. The ride, according to Lonely Planet, is supposed to be 10 hours long. That makes sense—leave around 10pm, arrive around 6am. I foolishly forgot to ask Akash Adventures how long our ride would be. Only now, in the middle of the night, do we confirm that thanks to the clear roads and our Formula 1 driver, we’ll arrive in only 7 hours—i.e. 3am.

Who the hell schedules a night bus to arrive at 3am?

I fume over that question through broken sleep until, roughly around 2:30am, I notice that bus is getting really cold. Everyone is cold. Just as cold as the mountain night air would be, in fact…but all the windows are closed…ah yes, there it is. I look behind me and lo and behold, the double doors in the back are OPEN. There is a five inch gap between where the doors should be and where they are. They’re still latched, and that’s why all our luggage isn’t falling out, but nonetheless, the doors are open.

I go up and tell the driver to stop and close the doors. He hastily pulls over, gives the doors two half-hearted slams, failing to attach them to the van’s body. And then gets back in the front and says “No problem, only 10 kilometers more to Manali.”

“Really?” I say. “Only ten kilometers and our luggage falling out is no problem?”

The driver mumbled something and took off again like a bullet.

*Nineteen* freezing kilometers later (roughly 3am) we arrive on some desolate stretch of alley that is the Manali Private Station. The other passengers ask about hotels, and the drivers says that we need to go to the villages of Old Manali or Vashist, 2km away. “Can you take us there?” asks one British woman. “Fifty rupees each,” responds the driver. Here we are, being dropped by the side of the road at 3am, and this guy is squeezing an extra 500 rupees out of his passenger load. Admittedly, 50 rupees is not much more than 1 US dollar, and I could have seen this situation coming. But it still hurt. Especially with that unsafe cracked door pouring frigid night air into the cabin.

We, the passengers, concede to this offer and he drops us in front of an Old Manali hotel. When collecting 50 rupees from everyone, I’m the last in line and I ask the driver about the 50 rupee discount for a freezing cold cabin caused by cracked doors that the driver would not close. He gets the gist and drives on.

We land in a 300 rupee hotel and collapse on the sheets. Thus ends the Bus Ride from Hell.