It is a terrible, terrible, night. We screech down roads, and hurtle round bends in the pitch black for hours on end. Moanings and groanings are audible throughout the vehicle. I hear someone screaming, hysterically, “For god’s sake, be careful, that’s a hairpin bend we’re going round.” The Tibetan monk, next to me, has opened the window and is vomiting, copiously, out of it. As for me, I know without looking in a mirror that I’m deathly pale and I thank god I ate nothing before climbing on board. I put my head between my legs, because I feel so faint, and tell myself that this will pass. But the truth is I am bloody terrified because this driver is a mad man, and 52 people are entirely at his mercy.
Just before 2 am, we screech to a halt. We’re really in the middle of nowhere and there’s no street lighting. With the help of my trusty Magnate torch, I shine a light out of the window. Outside, there’s a shack, which is selling cigarettes and local food. Apparently, this is the driver’s post-midnight snack break. It seems we’ve got a 30 minute “rest” from this fresh hell. As everyone staggers off the bus, for air, or to use one of the filthy toilets nearby, I notice that absolutely no-one’s looking great. Some of my fellow passengers have dazed looks on their faces – they must be the night-bus virgins. Thank god, I tell myself, that at least I knew what to expect.
Suddenly, out of the blue, a small boy who can’t be more than 9 or 10 appears, a satchel slung across his shoulder. He isn’t shy – no, no. He’s got the look of a salesman written all over his face. I wonder if he’s selling onion bhajis that his mother just whipped up in their kitchen? Or jewelry? Or maybe woolen scarves? (They’re all the rage in this region). He draws near to us and puts his hand inside the satchel. And pulls out……an enormous stash of cornettos.
In three different flavours. Yes. My absolutely, unbelievably, top-five-desert-island-castaway-foods…there for the purchasing, outside this shack, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. And, amazingly, I realize I’m hungry and the thought of something sweet is really hitting the spot. He’s got vanilla, strawberry and – not what you’d expect but I’m a big lover of it– pistacchio. He wants 15 rupees (about $0.35) per cone which, of course is a real bargain, though well on the steep side in India (a cornetto would cost me no more than 8 rupees in a local store). But this is not the time to argue. I delve into my pocket and dig out a 100 rupee note.
“No change…sorry madam…” he murmurs. So I delve back in. The coins I have leave him 2 rupees short but he’s more than happy. I’m wagering he’s going to sell the lot (anywhere between 10-15) to people like me, with hardy stomachs and a penchant for a late-night snack. He’s working on an almost a 100% mark-up and this is one little entrepreneur whom I suspect is cleaning up (probably each night, at 2 am). Good for him. As I bite into my cornetto, and savour the creamy, sugary concoction slowly dissolving in my mouth, I realise that a broad smile has spread across my face. This kid has made a hellish journey that little bit more bearable. (And as I spy the grins on faces of my fellow-passengers, I know I am not alone).
The last six hours are unpleasant, but tolerable. We’re on flat ground now and, as dawn breaks even the Tibetan monk next to me perks up. By the time we pull into the outskirts of Delhi, at 7 am, I’m drained, shaken (it’s got to have a place in my “Top Five Bus Nightmare Journeys of All Time”) and look like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. But I got here. In one piece. And that cornetto was a lifesaver.