On a recent journey south, I was again reminded of the importance of letting go in order to experience the experience.
It was a travel day: the day I load up my pack and mentally rev myself up for a long day. I had on my usual “I don’t care if you get filthy dirty” outfit and laced up my “I can conquer anything” Hummer shoes. I figured I was ready for whatever came my way. Then, I was reminded it was India.
Our journey was a mere five hour bus ride. We purchased our tickets at the bus station (at a surely inflated price) and were soon directed to our seats. Here we found out we didn’t actually have seats. Nope, we had a…uh…well, I guess you could call a bed.Above the crowded, dusty bus seats there was a second level near the roof of the bus suspended in the air. It was like the top bunk of a bunk bed only on a bus and only so tattered it would never pass for a bed. With seemingly no other choice, we were told to ascend the metal ladder and crawled into the six foot by nothing space for the journey. Deep breaths and time to surrender, I reminded myself.
Just then an observant 11-year old girl shouts up to us in English that these guys were pulling a fast one on us. The prison cell-like bunk they had stuffed us into, she told us, was actually made for one person, not two. When we realized traveling like two caged birds wasn’t the norm, we argued vehemently for a refund. After a few Hindi curse words were thrown our way, we settled. Ryan and I would sit in the front cabin with the bus driver.
Among the orchestra of honking horns, clanking motors, rattling doors and hypnotizing Hindi music, the ride began. Our new pal and bus driver Sahil greeted us. With his dark curly hair that seemed to start at his forehead and wrap strategically down his neck and out the front of his shirt, Sahil introduced himself with the typical lineup of Indian questions:
“What country you from?, First time to India?, You happy?, You married?, Why you not have kids?, You have job?, What is your salary?” I tried to answer as best I could while avoiding the awkward encounter.
Sahil affectionately shot back, “Ahhh, I love you. I love America!,” before shouting “Alaska!!!!” at the top of his lungs. We were in for a joy ride.
In his musically-accented, broken English Sahil went on to share stories of his Iranian ancestry and details of his love life. He explained the traditions and rituals of his Muslim Indian culture and was sure to point out notable landmarks along the way. And when words failed we communicated with exaggerated hand gestures in a comical game of charades.Soon I realized it would get worse before it got better. After our jovial introduction, Sahil stopped the bus every fifteen minutes for the next three hours to let new passengers on. Every inch of the bus, aisle included, was soon crawling with people. Our threesome in the front cabin quickly turned into a foursome, into a five-some and soon a twelve-some. By the third hour we were 13. Nearly all the men removed their shoes upon entering the bus and sweaty feet were everywhere. In between studious stares at us foreigners, they took turns coughing up unidentified liquids to shoot out the window.
I was miserable. By this point my rear-end was nearly hoisted in the air, while the desert sun beat down on my sweat-beaded face. So cramped, in fact, my head was wedged into the windshield until good, ol’ Sahil let out a blood curdling scream: “Lava [Laura], Lava [Laura], noooo!” I found myself inches away from disturbing the peace of the Hindu statue sitting on the dashboard and draped in a wreath of marigolds.Along the way my miserable situation was put in check. Slums lined the highway for as far as the eye could see and barefoot children ran after our bus in their appalling ragged clothing. They looked up at us with their empty eyes and hungry bellies. This was misery.
I also realized I wasn’t the only one on the bus with bodies pressed up against them. Just the only one so bothered. The Indian people were as cramped as I but had no ill-feelings or bad temper. Rather they were relaxed, tolerant and patient. Surely this must come from a deeper understanding of what real world problems are. They taught me I still have a way to go.
India is the marathon of travel. It’s an exhausting, mental challenge, a test of your physical limits and often has you questioning why you are there. Luckily, along the way you realize just how rewarding it can be.
By the time we arrived at our destination, Ryan had to literally drag me off the bus. I had become buddies with several of my cabin mates and after a few photos, lots of handshakes and invites for chai, I was ready to put this travel day to an end.
On the grueling bus journey, I rubbed shoulders with the people of the interior towns and villages and saw scenes of true desperation. I learned more during these hours than I could have learned on any first-class ticket. Back at my hotel, with my own cup of chai in hand, I realized I had surrendered and I had won.