I wake with a start. There’s a terrific storm in Rishikesh, lightning flashing, thunder crashing, and rain pelting down outside our hotel window. I look at my watch – its 5am. The plan was to rouse the troops and get an early start on the long road north. But the troops are sleeping soundly, I’m still exhausted, and I figure we’ll be drowned rats before we’ve even got on the bus. It seems to me that we’ll need to be in good shape for today’s journey, so I reset the alarm for 7am and roll over.
Two hours later, amazingly, the storm is over, the sun shining brightly. I shake Yael and Nir awake (Yael wants to apply face cream and Nir is already whining for a bottle of coca cola – how does this boy still have teeth?) and I have to chivvy them both along. I promise them breakfast along the way, help them throw things in their backpacks and usher them down the stairs. We’re off. And since the bus stand – and timetable (not in English) – is ten metres across the road, there’s not much marching involved.
The game plan (if one can ever have a game plan in India, the country where anything is possible) is to catch a bus to Chandrigah (the capital of the Punjab) and from there another bus to Shimla. There is a “short cut” (through a series of what looks like minor roads on my map) but I believe it’s better to err on the side of caution. The general consensus at the bus station (I receive four opinions in seven minutes, all varying wildly of course) is that this journey will take about nine hours. Nine hours seems reasonable, I figure. I grab an onion bhaji at the food stand, gulp down some hot chai and look around for the bus.
There’s a catch, of course. There seems to be no bus to the Punjab. I can’t believe it (there’s got to be a bus to the capital of an Indian state, nu?) but the locals are gesticulating wildly, telling me it ain’t arriving and if we want to be in Shimla by dark, the best thing to do is take the “short cut” via Dehradun and Solan (I peer at my tatty map to check – yes, these towns do actually exist). Yael’s still yawning, Nir’s gone off to buy us some lychees and I realise I’m going to have to make an executive decision. The Punjab is a “safer” option (we can always find a place to spend the night) but if there really is no direct bus, we could find ourselves sitting at this bus terminal all day, which won’t be pleasant. I spy two young, pretty women with small holdalls and run up to them. Yes, they tell me, the “short cut” is fine. In fact, they’re going that way, because they’re studying at Solan University, about two hours south of Shimla. That’s it. Never one for procrastination, I make my decision. “Short cut” it is.
I will live to regret it, of course, but as they say, you live and learn. Or as we Jews say, you live.
We all scramble on board the bus (being a local bus, it’s got hard wooden seats, no fans and a driver’s seat adorned with portraits of Krishna, flower garlands and some fab flashing lights. It’s crowded but I’m not that bothered – been there, done that, got the backache. I give Nir my precious place and the girls all scooch over – there’s now three of us sharing two seats, but we’re all fine with that because, in true local style, they’re dying to talk to me. The engine starts up (it sounds like an Apache helicopter about to take off) and belches out a plume of black smoke. Bad brakes, creaky suspension and an overloaded vehicle – yes, we’re off, off, off to the mountains!
We’re squashed and uncomfortable but these two women and I don’t really care and we chat for almost two hours. Both are studying engineering, and have been visiting relatives in Rishikesh. At Solan University, they share a bedroom in what’s known as a “ladies boarding house.” They’re polite, curious and probably model students – it’s my feeling that sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll don’t go down that well in Brahmin communities. One is planning to move to Delhi to work (in human resources); the other has her sights on abroad. They are just as curious about me, what I’m doing in their country and so we talk incessantly. Before I realise it, we’ve arrived at our first leg. All change!
And the next bus pulls in…and then my heart sinks, because this one makes the last one look like a Rolls Royce...
(to be continued...)