The windows are cracked. The doors look like they could fall off at any moment. And it’s packed. And when I say packed, I don’t mean every seat is taken. I mean, it’s two or three to a regular seat, people jammed in, squeezed up against each other like sardines, screaming babies, cute kids, shy women and old people that I can’t even give up my seat for. Oh yes, and don’t forget the woman with the livestock in her lap (luckily, she’s at the front). Nir throws our backpacks on the roof and we bundle in. People are shoving me (though, not, I must say, aggressively – in fact it pains me to admit that my fellow Tel Avivis are far ruder). Out of the corner of my eye, I see the two women students jostling further up the bus (Apparently, they do this journey every two months, so no doubt they’re pros). I can’t see my troops and I’m just going to have to hope that they make it on. Clearly, it’s every soldier for himself at this point! The bus lurches to one side, the guy hanging out of the back door almost loses his shoe and I suddenly realise it’s going to be…well, less than a picnic at the beach
The first half an hour is actually pleasant. There’s a great atmosphere on the bus (a kind of “war spirit”) and I think to myself “this isn’t so bad.” But we ascend quickly, climbing higher and higher, the engine straining. The air is cool, but the bus is so crowded I can barely catch my breath. Despite the pure air and falling temperature, rivulets of sweat are forming on my brow, and around my stomach (I’ve got my sweaty money belt, complete with passport, wads of notes and emergency credit cards). Clinging for dear life onto a metal pole I’ve spied, I’m only just keeping my balance. I look round and behind me realise we’re high up in the hills, miles and miles of forestation behind me.
And straining my neck, I see what lies in front of us. Perilous, treacherous, narrow roads, winding through these mountains, with tiny houses dotted across the landscape. My stomach churns…I don’t like heights at the best of times and I suddenly realise we’re mighty far up.
Even more remarkable, the bus is packed with spry oldies (70 plus I’d say) who, unbelievably, are treating this journey like nothing more than a quick hop to the local supermarket. Of course, I know they have little choice – cars are for the wealthy in India. These people, I realise, are making this journey on a regular basis – to see family, collect provisions, travel for work. And most of them, like me, are going to be standing all the way. My foot’s got cramp, I feel nauseous, my head is beginning to pound (altitude sickness?) and I realise I have no idea how long this is going to take. I reckon it’s about 300 kms to Shimla from Rishikesh, but we can’t be going more than 30 kms an hour. (I later calculate that it was closer to 25 kms). I motion to Yael, who I see a few metres from me, also doing a balancing act. She grimaces. I think about yelling over to her but realise it’s probably better to conserve my strength.
The next five hours pass in a blur. I will later rank this particular ride one of my Five All-Time Bus Journeys through Hell (by the end of my ‘Himalayan Adventure’ I’ll have to re-write the list, but luckily I don’t know this just yet). Villagers are hopping off periodically, but even more are cramming on. There are no toilet stops (luckily, I’d predicted this which is why I’ve drunk next to nothing since breakfast).
I stand on one foot, then another, attempt to manoeuvre myself into a corner at the back (impossible, there’s a crate load of chickens there), hang my head out of the window (I feel as if I’m going to throw up badly, any moment) and try to think happy thoughts. I know we’re a long way up now, on yet another Indian bus with no suspension and dodgy brakes, and that one false move could have us hurtling over the edge of this road, down, down, down into a valley below.
And then the bus swerves wildly and misses a fellow bus, coming in the opposite direction, by a couple of metres. And, literally, my life flashes before my eyes. I try and envisage the aftermath of the bus crash. No survivors of course. But will they find my body? Will I make the front page of Israel’s daily, Haaretz, or the London Times for a day, before the news of my untimely demise becomes fish and chip wrappings?
Will my oldest friend Lorenzo (known for his wit) dare to tell a joke at my eulogy? Will my opera-singer friend Rebecca sing Laudate Dominium at my subsequent memorial service? (It’s so fitting, I believe). Will my parents remember to bury me with my Chelsea flag that I saved from the Barca game at Stamford Bridge last May? (Probably not, it’s in my apartment in Tel Aviv in a place so super safe even I can’t locate it). What will become of my precious book collection? Will the vultures be circling even before my body is flown back to Terra Sancta?
I’m too young to die, I tell myself. It’s not my time. I make a silent deal with God in my head – if I make it to my destination in one piece, not only will I never ever do such a reckless thing again, but I am going to the best person ever – give more charity money, curb my sarcastic tongue, visit my parents more often…and even tape books for the blind in my spare time. Just get me over the mountains, I pray silently to the Big Guy.
Amazingly, and I say this without sarcasm, there is no free-fall into the valley below, no head on collision (these mountains roads are very narrow) and no octogenarian or infant falls out the back door (though there are a few close shaves). Yael’s hanging on for dear life, but looking rough. Three locals squeeze up their wooden bench and make a few spare inches of room for me (I am immensely grateful, but after half an hour I realise it’s easier to stand again). Nir, to my amazement, has not just found his own seat further up the bus, but has actually fallen asleep.
His complete indifference to this terrifying journey reminds me of a ferry trip I took with my parents, as a kid, across the English Channel where, as my mother groaned, turning greener by the moment, my father bit into a large cheese sandwich). And just as I think I can’t hack it another minute, I spy an old man in front of me, who can’t be a day younger than 80. He has bright dark eyes and wizened skin but to me he is handsome. His almost toothless grin is beguiling at I gaze at him. He smiles at me and for a moment I am reminded of my own beloved grandfather. I feel completely emotional…and know I am going to get through this. If he can endure this ride, so can I.
And somehow, this wizened old man gets me through the worst of it. We keep flashing smiles each other all the way to Solan. And when we finally pull in I realise, with great joy that I am still in one piece.
The last leg of our 283 kilometre journey (which takes us about 4 hours) is ‘uneventful.’ This means that the road is now flat. I’m no longer nauseous (just completely wiped out), and that the bus is slightly less jammed. We pull in for a rest stop and Yael, with glee, informs me that she’s found a clean toilet. “I’ve paid for you too” she says, ordering me off the bus. “Only 3 rupees…” The air outside feels good and I dutifully relieve myself. Splashing myself with water, I glance at myself in the mirror. Amazingly, colour is returning to my face. Walking outside, I look up at the view. I feel good because finally we are in Himachal – God’s Country as Indians like to call it. And Shimla’s not far off now.