My first bus ride in India

women in Rajastahn

women in Rajasthan

Traveling into the heart of India

In the last four years, on three separate trips, I have traveled for about 11 months in India by myself. I have been on or in almost every mode of transport you can think of: plane, train, taxi, private car, autorickshaw, bicycle rickshaw, motorcycle, even elephant and camel. But until very near the end of my third trip, I had never been on a public bus.

I was beginning to think I was afraid. Public buses in India are known for being hot and crowded and free of modern amenities such as A/C and suspension. I had heard stories about leering men, live chickens and lunches cooked on small stoves.

But, to be fair, just before my first trip, I promised my brother – a man whose idea of an adventure vacation is hitting the bars in Cancun – that I would not get on a bus in India. He was reading a book about all the terrible things that can happen to you around the world, and I guess bus accidents in India figured largely on the list.

So, though I had traveled from one end of India to the other, from Dharamsala in the hilly north to Kanyakumari at the very southern tip, where three oceans meet, on that first trip, I never once took a bus. And by my third trip, buses just never made it into the itinerary.

Pushkar, Rajasthan

Pushkar, Rajasthan

But then one day I found myself in Pushkar. Pushkar’s like that; it draws people; people who like to relax and soak up the atmosphere, or the “vibes” as they are known in this part of the world. I spent nine days lounging on the perfect rooftop terrace restaurant of the Seventh Heaven Inn, soaking up the vibes and meeting other women travelers who all arrived by public bus – and who all left by public bus.

When it was my turn to leave, I investigated the options. I was going only about 100 kilometres, to Roopanghar, another small town in central Rajasthan. I decided it was time to take the plunge. I figured the statute of limitations on my promise to my brother had expired. And besides, the trip was only two hours on flat, desert terrain. How bad could it be?

I hitched a taxi ride to Ajmer with a fellow traveler, walked confidently into the bus station, bought my ticket, found my bus and waited only about 15 minutes to load. As I struggled to get me, my bag, my purse and my camera bag onto the bus, I was pushed from behind by two very assertive Indian women. I found a seat and by the time I loaded on my stuff, there was just enough room for me, and not much for anyone else. And then the bus filled up and I found myself crammed in with two children, an older sister and younger brother, sitting virtually on my lap.

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We left on schedule as people settled into their seats and the people around me settled into staring at me. Especially the two pushy women in from of me and their young daughter, who didn’t seem to have a seat at all, and opted instead into standing as close as she could to me, shoulder to shoulder.

The women kept smiling and talking to me in a language I didn’t understand, the girl kept trying to get as close as possible and the bus kept getting hotter under the noonday sun and it was all very interesting for about the first hour. Eventually, I was starting to feel suffocated, and wondering if the last hour of the trip was going to be an endurance test, when the young girl handed me a candy.

These were poor people; people who didn’t have very much, nor much hope of ever having very much. I was moved by her generosity and as I took the candy I felt the bittersweet tug of genuine humility. A little while later, she gave me another.

Rooting around in my purse, I found a little beaded bag I bought in Rishikesh and handed it to her. She dutifully handed it to her mother and grandmother, who looked it over and approved. Then they smiled at me with real warmth and the little girl hugged me, and I noticed how beautiful she was. She had huge eyes and delicate features and long fawn-like limbs.

I turned away to look out the window at the dry desert landscape, baking under the scorching sun, and dotted with mud huts and women walking with huge bundles of twigs and branches on their heads, or almost as equally large jugs of water. My eyes filled with tears as I realized the real reason I had avoided taking the bus.

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10 Responses to My first bus ride in India

  1. Helen Lee August 24, 2009 at 12:21 am #

    Hi Mariellen – This is a beautiful and inspiring website that I will visit often.

    Namaste,
    Helen

  2. Betina August 24, 2009 at 12:42 am #

    Mariellen;

    Thank you for sharing your moments and memories with us. I am right there with you as you recount with vivid emotional detail what mattered most. It takes me in and to my place in Africa. You inspire me and I look forward to reading on…

  3. Jennifer August 23, 2009 at 11:33 pm #

    Nice story. I used to take the busses in Chennai for daily travel to and from field works appointments. Two memories really stick out. One was the day someone set a baby on my lap.. it could have been anyone, but it was me, and the baby had no pants or, of course, diapers on….Of course I was a little unnerved wondering what if…
    Then the second memory was a local person who saw me on the same route everyday, came up to me and in Tamil asked me about a route, and I answered in Tamil! Gosh, if only I had stayed there longer and kept up with my Tamil skills…. 🙂

  4. Anand Kumar August 24, 2009 at 6:11 am #

    It’s very interesting. Wish you all the best.
    Anand Kumar

  5. Elsie James August 24, 2009 at 8:39 pm #

    Those of us who have spent time in various parts of South Asia and on local buses can certainly relate to the experience you described, Mariellen. Thanks for sharing. If we get together sometime, remind me to tell you about climbing over milk cans and goats to get off a bus or the time that I didn’t have a seat and was squashed up against a local sheep herder when the temperature was pushing upwards of the 40C mark! When the bus broke down, we took advantage of the stop to climb up on the roof and ride the rest of the way in the fresh air. It was a little disconcerting when the bus lurched in a deep rut and hung over the edge of an abyss at about a 35 degree angle. I was looking down into the bottom of a deep gorge and clinging to the rail on the edge of the roof! It’s all part of the adventure. And, it doesn’t take long to learn that Asian bus drivers have very large bladders that can go hours without relief. When they do stop it’s always where the men can pee over the cliff and the women have to walk blocks to find a bush (if there is time to do so)!

  6. Pett October 4, 2009 at 8:09 pm #

    I have already seen it somethere…
    Thanks

  7. Rachit Aggarwal November 15, 2013 at 2:57 am #

    Most of the people coming on this website are foreigners planning for their India trip.

    But, I, as Indian feel that I equally enjoying these beautiful articles.
    Rachit Aggarwal recently posted..MahaShivratri celebrations at Brahma Kumaris, Shanti SarovarMy Profile

  8. Cross That Box August 9, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

    That was so beautiful.

    We’ve only just started to become comfortable with taking local buses and I’m so glad we have. (In Africa though).

    Loved reading this xoxo

    Carly
    Cross That Box recently posted..Local Buses vs. Luxury Coach in AfricaMy Profile

  9. Honey August 9, 2015 at 10:45 pm #

    oh what memories you conjure up for me. I love your stories and will be back. Reminded me of traveling by bus in Nepal. Never travel by bus or train in America so tried that adventure when I got home. As long as I’m moving I’m happy

  10. venus john August 10, 2015 at 7:55 am #

    thanks for the wonderful post..i am not sure I understood the real reason that you did not take buses in india before this..was it because you would get very close to real life in india..and it would touch you,and make you emotionally vulnerable?

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