India: The Hellbus

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My fourth day in Udaipur was spent doing glorious beautiful wonderful nothing. Two weeks into my trip, and I was feeling exhausted. Heat and booze and a constant flurry of new faces and the ever-looming dread of food poisoning, which has ravaged literally every single person I’ve met bar me, all conspire to leave me absolutely knackered. I spent a half hour in the morning doing yoga on the rooftop with Sandeep, and then happily committed myself to a blissful day of fuck all.

I didn’t leave the hostel when James and Jonas went for breakfast. I didn’t leave it when Joy invited me to come along to the Animal Aid shelter with Leah and Lee. I didn’t leave it when Max and Danny and Job headed out for pizza. I didn’t leave when James and Jonas left for an Indian cookery class. I said no to everyone, all day, and sat alone in the shade with my book.

The afternoon passed, and I slowly worked through the tedium of The Alchemist, a book I picked up on a friend’s recommendation in Delhi. I liked it at first; the whole ‘follow your dreams no matter what the cost’ thing seemed painfully relevant, yet as the novel wore on I grew cynical and foul tempered reading its jaw-grindingly obvious revelations. Listen to the Soul of the World! All Things are One! Everything is Nothing! Great life advice, real fortune cookie standard. Cheers for that Paulo Coellho you vapid snake oil shyster.

The Spanish shepherd boy in the story sets out to find a treasure in Egypt, and along the way he has a few setbacks, and he must overcome discomfort and longing in order to achieve his true dream. And then… he gains magical powers and… speaks to the sun… and he meets an alchemist who is invincible… and he finds his treasure buried outside his old home town back in Spain… and his treasure is… a box of gold. I’m sorry, what? What lessons are we to draw from this boy who achieves his humble dream of finding a fuckload of gold coins, aided along by magical kings and gods?

If I set out to seek my own destiny, I am pretty fucking sure God won’t descend from a cloud and point me in the right direction. Every setback won’t be immediately aided by cosmic powers; if I get my heart broken, as I do regularly, God won’t lean down from his cloud and ruffle my hair and make it all okay. It will just fucking hurt and hurt and life goes on. The kid gets robbed of all his money at one point, and within three pages he’s been gifted another lump of gold from a kind stranger. I dunno, whatever. If you have ever hooked up with someone based on their star sign you’ll love this book.

Everybody in the hostel returned from their respective adventures in the late afternoon, and we once more watched the sunset from the terrace, with complimentary chai courtesy of Sandeep. James and Jonas and I had a night bus booked to Jaisalmer from 8.30 that evening, and after some rum and one last curry with the Udaipur Bunkyard gang, we grabbed our bags, bid everybody farewell, invited each other to our respective homes should we ever travel to each other’s countries, and left.

We took a tuk tuk to the bus stop (great sentence to read aloud, English is a wild language). The city was comfortable and warm in the dark. Kids asked us if we wanted to buy water, local street sellers sat on the pavement and smoked and watched us with lazy interest. A few people shook our hands and asked where we from; it’s run of the mill, now. And then I glanced up the road, and saw walking towards us an elephant, and my heart burst inside my chest. An elephant! A real, live elephant, a mountain, ambling down the street under orange streetlights, bowling through the whirring torrent of motorcycles! I gasped and called the guys over; they barely moved as they’d seen hundreds in Jaipur. I’ve never seen an elephant outside of a zoo.

Somebody sat atop it on a rickety wooden seat, and directed the animal. A couple of street sellers saw me gawping with glistening eyes and told me it’s a very sad thing; the elephants are treated badly. I said that I knew it, and I hate it, but I wasn’t admiring the rider. I was admiring the beautiful animal lumbering ponderously through the market. I watched it until it was out of sight, all the hairs on my arms standing on end. In the street lights, wading in silence through the chaos around its feet, the elephant looked prehistoric, mythical. I could only sigh and wipe my eyes. I knew there was still some magic left in this world. I knew it.

We got on the bus at 9pm and I took my bed, which can only fairly be described as a horrible dirty coffin. It was maybe two feet across, about 6 feet in length – tall people are fucked in India. I’m 5’9 and even I’ve found the occasional bed where my feet stick out the end. My bed was up a little ladder, and immediately I felt a pang of claustrophobia. 12 hours lying down in this little narrow box. It was just big enough to sit up, but only barely. I took my shoes off and kicked them down the far end, and used my backpack for a pillow – the only other ‘pillow’ provided was a slightly raised section of the neverwashed mattress, still fresh with hair grease from the previous occupant. I’m cool with a certain amount of grime, but for some reason other people’s hair oil freaks me out. I strapped myself in for 12 hours of fun.

We set off, and immediately the sensation of lying down while whizzing forward was strange. The mattress was thin – so thin that it was more of a long cushion than a mattress. Every time we hit a bump in the road, I flew up and slammed back down; this was roughly once every 3 seconds. Horns blared, streetlights beamed in through the windows, a bunch of Israeli kids on board were loudly watching Rick and Morty (one of my most loathed shows) on their phones, and I lay alone in the depths of India, staring out of the window, musing quietly on my life choices.

You know at night, when you can’t get to sleep, and you lie there thinking about everything, and you think too long and too deep and you end up wracked with existential dread and regret and sorrow? Yeah so it was 12 hours of that, because I couldn’t nod off for more than 5 minutes without being flung out of my seat and clattered into the window.

The driver was going hell for leather, and I gazed around the bus and found that everyone but me had somehow managed to nab some shut-eye. We climbed high into the hills, navigating pin-point turns over ragged cliffs at 50mph. My heartbeat was normal, but I was quietly convinced I was going to die. I suppose I’d been awake for so long at this point that a soaring bus ride off a mountaintop was preferable to another 7 hours of unconsensual headbanging.

We pulled over at a petrol station in the small hours, down a vast stretch of blackened country road, and yet, in the desert, in the early morning, we still found some 25 Indian guys hanging out, wanting to shake hands and asking for selfies. I took a couple with but then got a bit grumpy and refused any more. Jonas got off the bus for a piss and told me he’d slept like a baby the whole way thanks to his neck pillow. Bastard.

At around 3am I feel bloated and gassy, and began to panic that I was in the opening stages of food poisoning. I’ve had it a couple of times in Berlin, and by this point I know the early signs well. It starts with bloating and nausea and it ends with me lying in a naked heap on the bathroom floor sweating and whimpering and weeping and shitting. I wasn’t so keen on the idea of hurling my guts up out of the window of a moving bus, or shitting myself in a coffin bed, and the stress of maybe-impending sickness kept me awake. Well, even more awake. But the window of possibility that I could get sick from my last meal passed (a window I’ve completely made up, of around 6 hours), and I could relax and try to sleep. Try being the operative word.

I half slept for an hour or two, but the sleep was that strange place between waking and dream that you slip into when you’re super caffeinated (or on an absolute CUNTLOAD of COCAINE) where you have continual semi-nightmares without ever actually dropping off to lovely restorative slumber. I languished in this strange dreamscape for a long time, forgetting where I was, who I was with, what life was, and generally panicking and thinking I had died and gone to some weird smelling purgatory. And so the evening passed.

In the small hours of the morning, the AC turned from a godsend to a foul hex; with the outside temperature dropped to a mild 18 degrees, the bus certainly needed no cool air. However, the air con did not stop. Ever. And the vents would not shut, which meant that for some 5 hours, clad in a shirt and shorts, I was blasted with chilly air, until I’d forgotten what being warm ever felt like, and longed for the lancing heat of the desert sun. I was so cold I couldn’t sleep, and had to wrap myself in the greasy bus curtains. It wasn’t one of my proudest moments. But then, none of my moments are proud moments. My life is seemingly composed of an oscillating level of humiliation and shame which never reaches a less embarrassing level than ‘quivering and scarlet’.

At around 6.30am, as the sun had just risen, we were met with the perfect visual summary for the contradictions of India: the bus pulled over at a roadside shrine at the request of one of its occupants so he could make his morning prayer. A bus full of 50 people idled and watched a single man walk across the dry earth to the shrine, where he dropped to his knees, made a quick prayer, then scattered a bagful of bird seed all over. His prayers and bird feeding complete, he lobbed the plastic food sack over his shoulder, left it in the dirt, and climbed back on the bus. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you love something, DON’T SHIT ALL OVER IT. That’s one aspect of the culture here that I’ll never understand.

Out of nowhere I began desperately needing a piss at 7am, and we were due in to Jaisalmer at 8am. However, this is India, and due to a lengthy wait in the middle of the night where we had an hour-long face-off with another truck on a narrow mountain road, we arrived in Jaisalmer just after 9am, which meant that my bladder was nicely ruptured and I’d burst several blood vessels in my eyeballs trying to hold everything in.

So it was that drenched in sweat (yet minutes from pneumonia), utterly sleepless, disorientated, bewildered and with shitbag wildhair, I stumbled off the hellbus, ready(ish) to begin my next adventure – in the desert town of Jaisalmer.

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