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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

The Bus Journey From Hell – a short story from India.

In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.

“Udaipur! Udaipur! Uuuuuuudaipur!!!”

With less than a minute to spare we hurried through the commotion of the bus terminal, heading towards the agitated sound of the final call. ‘‘Uuuuuuudaipur!!!”

‘‘There it is!’’ called Allan, our feet skidding on the gravel as we rounded a sharp corner. Straining my neck to see, I knocked into several people as I ran. Praying that the damn thing wouldn’t pull away just when we’d finally found it. Happily, we were in luck! Although my initial excitement melted away as we came to a breathless stop. Oh dear, our so-called deluxe bus was a monstrous hunk of metal no different from any of the other metallic clones that filled Jaisalmer Bus Station. Where exactly had my extra Rupees gone? “Udaipur?” puffed Lindsay, red-cheeked. And, like the rest of us, more than a little flustered. 

“Udaipur!” confirmed the guard, “you go Udaipur?”

“Yes” I answered.

You have ticket?”

“Yes!” we all replied in unison.

“For Udaipur?”

Allan fumbled in the breast pocket of his shirt, almost dropping the stubs as he pushed them into the man’s hand.

“This are tickets?” came his bizarre question.

‘‘Yes!!!’’ confirmed Holly, lines of sweat racing down her cheeks.

‘Tickets for Udaipur?’’

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Closing my eyes in an attempt to tune out and tap into my inner karma, I resisted the urge to scream at this idiotic man. Thankfully the eternally diplomatic Allan took over and made him understand. Finally comprehending that we were all Udaipur-bound, the guard informed us that taking our backpacks onboard was ‘‘not allowed’’. Hence he directed us to the Liggage Compertment at the back of the bus, where a sign encouraged passengers to Leave Your Values. ‘‘Five Rupees one bag!’’ demanded Liggage Boy, a shifty teen who looked as though he’d hot-wired a car or two in his time. He held out an expectant paw as a wave of cynicism swelled among the gathered travellers.

The Bus Journey From Hell, a short story from India.

Surveying the situation, I couldn’t help but share in the general concern. An infamous Indian bus scam saw storage berths left accidentally unlocked. Then, usually just a few minutes after departure, the bus makes a routine stop at a set of traffic lights and a gaggle of thieves slip between the vehicles. It takes them just seconds to open the door and bundle your Liggage into a nearby rickshaw. Moreover, it’s usually hours before you realise you’ve lost your values.

“How about we give you the money when we get our bags back in Udaipur?” suggested a well-built American in a Yankees cap. The boy shook his head defiantly, a floppy mass of dark hair falling over his beady eyes. “Money now!” Reluctantly paying him, we pushed our bags as far to the back as possible, so that they were buried behind the others. In the meantime the American guy promised to keep an eye on things from his spot in the back row of the bus.

Short story India

The Bus Journey From Hell, a short story from India.

Onboard, the seating allocation was a complete fiasco! Allan and I quickly discovered that we had the same seat numbers as a middle-aged American couple. Furthermore, they were already settled in and had no intention of moving. When we alerted the driver to the situation, he simply told us to “find seat”. Less than animated at the prospect of standing up for fourteen hours, that’s exactly what we did!

Installing ourselves behind Lindsay and Holly, we were soon approached by two Indian women whose seats we’d just hijacked. With sheepish smiles we muttered our apologies, while they in turn grabbed the nearest available spaces. Thus the wheels were set in motion for total bedlam, the four of us looking on in bemusement as the stampede unfolded. Get a seat, any seat, by any means! It wasn’t a pretty sight.  

10 Rupee note India.

The Bus Journey From Hell, a short story from India.

Before long the bus had become jam-packed and people were still boarding. These passengers were mostly Indian men who had to make do with standing in the aisle. They didn’t seem at all surprised or put out by this inconvenience. In fact, it struck me that for them this was probably business as usual. Outside, an impossibly good-looking Swedish couple refused to board until they’d seen the boy lock the door to the luggage hold. The argument went back and forth until the driver threatened to leave without them. Moments later all three scurried onboard, Liggage Boy sitting alongside the driver on a raggedy cushion. Meanwhile, the Swedes wore the unimpressed looks of two people who knew there were no seats left. And that they were about to experience the most uncomfortable fourteen hours of their lives.

“He stomped onboard dressed in some kind of military uniform, his tree trunk arms swinging back and forth”.

It was time to go, and yet there was still space for one more passenger. A formidable beast of a man we came to christen The Colonel. He stomped onboard dressed in some kind of military uniform, his tree trunk arms swinging back and forth. He wore a camouflage rucksack on his muscly shoulders, his chest almost bursting out of a crisp white shirt. As for his meticulously polished boots… well… they looked more like weaponry than footwear. Knocking Liggage boy out of the way with an open-palmed slap, The Colonel claimed ownership of the cushion before turning his attention to the driver. Who he then proceeded to verbally assault with a furious monologue. By the time he’d finished, some minutes later, we’d pulled out of the station and were now clattering down the highway, full speed ahead.

The Bus Journey From Hell, a short story from India.

With the journey underway, The Colonel began working his way through the aisle counting heads, checking tickets and generally scaring the shit out of everyone. A few unfortunates even found themselves subject to interrogation. Who are you? Where are you going? What did you have for breakfast? Just watching him do his thing was draining. So Allan and I made a pact not to mess with him in any way. Finally done with his duties, The Colonel reclaimed his perch next to the driver, where he sat chain-smoking and stroking his moustache. All the while staring fixedly at the road ahead.

Kicking away the remains of a squashed sandwich and a rotting apple core, I regarded my immediate surroundings with a view to making myself more comfortable. First came the discovery that the overheard fan was broken. Then the grim realisation that my so-called reclining seat was jammed. Adding insult to injury, the bus made a tight turn and a random Indian man slid across the aisle into my lap, where he sat grinning at me like the village idiot. In fact, he looked so pleased with himself that for a horrific moment I thought he might stay for breakfast. Thankfully, he made his apologies and returned to his spot in no man’s land.

Bus from Jaisalmer to Udaipur India.

Jaisalmer to Udaipur, not a short journey.

Gradually, the road became rockier and the bus began jolting from side to side. I had just started to feel queasy when we came to a screeching halt, the windows clouding up with dust. With the mist clearing, I was amazed to see four more passengers squeezing in to join the fun. With precious little space inside, The Colonel barged them back out and began noisily directing them onto the roof!!! Hoisting each other up in neighbourly solidarity, they then had to reach down for their plentiful and varied baggage. This included a box of overflowing cricket bats and a small cage of miserable chickens. The roof groaning ominously above us, I did my best to be amused by it all and clear my mind of thoughts best categorised as worst-case scenario.

The Bus Journey From Hell, a short story from India.

Uncomfortable, hot and increasingly tired, the subsequent hours bled into each other in a blur of disjointed images. I recall semi-naked children playing on the muddy roadside and filthy dogs sniffing through mounds of garbage. Stunning lush green landscapes came and went, faraway hills dissipating before my eyes as darkness descended. Later on, at some timeless hour, The Colonel announced a stop at a godforsaken dustbowl of a village. Trundling out into the airless night like extras from Night of the Living Dead, we stood snacking on samosas while the roof people awkwardly descended with all their goods. Then disappeared into the blackness. 

Night of the Living Dead.

The Bus Journey From Hell: A transformative experience.

Then we were underway again, the journey resuming through a curtain of impenetrable night. Exhaustion had fully set in now. However, sleep wasn’t an option on The Bus Journey From Hell. The condition of the road was steadily worsening and at times it got so bad we were literally bouncing up and down in our seats. The driver crunching through potholes and honking his horn whenever there was even a sniff of another vehicle in sight.

Just when I thought things couldn´t get any worse, the sound system crackled to life. Blaring out at an ear-shattering volume, we endured an onslaught of Indian techno music. Some distressed sounding woman howling in Hindi over relentless dance beats. I turned toward Allan to express my disbelief but he was long gone, away in another world. Staring frog-eyed into the seat in front of him. There was a pained expression from Lindsay too, who glanced back at me as if to say shoot me now. I gave her a sympathetic squeeze of the hand as a baby began wailing a few rows ahead.

The Bus Journey From Hell, a short story from India.

Crowded bus India.

The Bus Journey From Hell, a short story from India.

Photo courtesy of awaygowe.

There were intermittent stops here and there, with passengers coming and going. At some point the music stopped, an event that was celebrated with a few ironic whoops and cheers. With the first traces of light creeping through the windows, we came to another standstill to pick up an ancient woman who took forever to hobble on board. Slowly but surely, her spindly limbs occluded by a multitude of swaying grocery bags, she made her way through the stuffy silence with a grimace that could have shattered glass. Regarding her as she plodded through the aisle, it felt as if I could have watched the director’s cut of Casino in the time it took her to sit down.

“In a surround sound tornado of screeching brakes, terrified gasps and duelling horns, we suddenly veered to the right and the bus skidded out of control”.

A good while later I found my eyes dropping and a warm fuzzy feeling sweeping over me. At long last I was succumbing to the sleep my body so desperately needed. Which, of course, was the exact moment we all nearly died! In a surround sound tornado of screeching brakes, terrified gasps and duelling horns, we suddenly veered to the right and the bus skidded out of control. Seconds later a minivan scraped past, cracking a few of our windows as it went. It was all over in a flash, though not before I caught sight of a ghostly woman in the other vehicle. Her face suspended in open-mouthed horror as our eyes met for the briefest of nanoseconds.

With our course stabilised, my heart started beating again and I took stock of my fellow passengers. A mass of stiff bodies and ashen faces. Amazingly nobody had been injured! The Swedes were sat cross-legged in the aisle looking bewildered, while Yankee cap was slumped back with his head in his hands, clearly no longer worrying about the liggage. Even the old lady was unharmed, albeit enormously unimpressed at having lost her groceries. Which had been redistributed haphazardly across the bus. ‘‘Here you are’’ said Holly, handing her a dented tin of tuna.

The Bus Journey From Hell, a short story from India.

High on the adrenaline of simply being alive, the final hour of the journey rushed by as bright bars of sunshine flowed in through the windows like sparkling white wine. Ironically, I fell asleep about ten minutes before we rolled into the city. “Udaipur!! Udaipur!!” I woke with a start to see Lindsay bending over us, rubbing her eyes, pulling on my sleeve. “Guys… we’re here!” Completely disoriented, I jumped up and my legs nearly buckled under the strain of my own body. 

Invigorated by the cool morning air, I watched Liggage Boy slowly unloading the bags with all the enthusiasm of a one-armed man shovelilng manure. Naturally I was delighted that our ordeal was over and grateful to be reunited with my unmolested backpack. Rummaging around in my money belt, I pulled out a ten Rupee note and dropped it into the boy’s grubby little hand. “Thank you sir!” he cooed, with a wide grin. Heading back to the bus where the last few bags awaited, he turned to look at me one last time, his smile still firmly in place. “Welcome to Udaipur!” he cried.

‘The Bus Journey From Hell’ is the eighth instalment of my short story series Incidents In India.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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7 Comments

  • Anonymous

    I know the the journey gave you the real India but I think I would have flown. 😛

    May 31, 2015 - 7:57 am Reply
  • Skytraveler

    If one positive thing came from this experience, it’s the story you have to tell 🙂

    June 3, 2015 - 5:31 am Reply
  • john

    You should write more stories! However as an Indian myself, a lot of these stories (although humorous) give a casual visitor a negative picture of my home country. Thankfully the next one is a good one and better still since it is my home town. 🙂 Looking forward to more positive stories!

    June 17, 2015 - 11:41 am Reply
    • leightonliterature

      Hi John, thanks for dropping by Leighton Literature and leaving a comment. You know, I really enjoyed my adventures in India and didn’t set out to write things from a negative standpoint. But as the series wore on I realised that a good chunk of my content indeed focuses on the various trials and tribulations. It’s just how things shaped up when I put finger to keypad. Having said that, I recently reviewed the collection and feel there are also plenty of positives to be taken. I highly recommend you to take a look at the following chapters: ‘What do you Think of Love?’ ‘Same Same But Different’, ‘Lalou’, ‘Octopussy’ and ‘Butch Cassidy & The Cashew Kid’. Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment!

      June 17, 2015 - 1:54 pm Reply
  • 999

    Funny story, glad you didn’t lose your “liggage”!

    June 28, 2018 - 1:41 am Reply
  • Mary

    After reading this story, I’m not sure I could have made it the entire journey and I’m sure I would never take a bus in India.

    January 26, 2020 - 8:10 pm Reply
  • Andrew Blackadder

    Number One rule in India, “There is always room on the Bus”….
    I have been on many a Bus and when it stopped I could count at least 20-30 people standing at the “Bus Stop”, however my Bus was packed to the rafters with people sitting and standing in the aisle and yet when the Bus pulled away all those people were gone and somehow managed to get on my Bus… Only in India…

    April 28, 2020 - 5:09 pm Reply

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