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“Want to eat something?” Ramesh pointed to the rickety structure around which crowds of people clustered, drinking their chai while they shouted and gesticulated.
I looked at the chai stall and instantly recollected a recent bout of Madras belly. “No thanks!”
We’d reached the border, a wildlife sanctuary sandwiched between the state of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, on the southwestern coast of India. The trip had been uneventful – so far!
“I’m glad the office bought us reserved coach tickets!”
Reserved coach is the only way to avoid fights and complications of the free-seating state transport buses. But even in our reserved coach, air-conditioning had consisted of wide-open windows and the heat had been oppressive. We’d experienced gut-wrenching roads on this leg of the journey, but cultural diversity along the way had made it a relatively pleasant trip.
“Madras office told me it was a simple matter to transfer to the Kerala bus system? It sure doesn’t look simple to me!”
Ramesh looked warily at the milling crowd fighting around the entrance of a departing bus. “There shouldn’t be a problem!”
In this remote area of India, state interchange passenger traffic is heavy, and the transport system under-resourced.
Ramesh checked with the ticket office and returned looking glum. “There are no reserved seats to Trivandrum from this location!”
We watched in alarm as a frenzied mob attacked the entrance each time a bus arrived at the bus terminal. The single doorway was jammed with people for several minutes before order could be restored. Priority for entrance was determined by blows and raised voices. Eventually someone gained entrance, and the bus filled to capacity within seconds. When the bus was full, there was scarcely space to breathe. Window seats were prizes obtained at great physical cost. A bus lingered long enough for passengers to inspect their wounds and stare with envy at those seated near a window before it eased out onto the highway.
Ramesh decided it was time to divert my attention. “We’ve been on the road auditing for six weeks today! Trivandrum will be our last audit stop and after that we can go home.”
Itineraries of long duration were normal for those times, and we were both tired of our night journey and work by day routine. Auditing assignments had taken us into mountains where the climate chilled to the bone, only to return to hot and dusty plains where one hundred degree temperatures were the norm. Tools of trade in those days included bulky adding machines, as well as usual auditing sundries, and in addition we had to carry sufficient warm clothes for hill country travel. For many reasons we were loaded, and this inhibited our progress.
I was more interested in my present misery. “We arrived at 9 am, and now its afternoon!” I was hungry, thirsty, and had little tolerance for the street hawkers attempting to sell tickets for a tour of the wildlife sanctuary.
“What’ll we do with this luggage? Five buses have come and gone to Trivandrum and there’s been no way to get on with all our stuff!”
We’d not been able to organize ourselves quickly enough with our burdensome luggage to gain entry to any of the departed buses. I was dispirited, and regretted accepting this audit assignment.
Ramesh was a son of India, and a very wise person. He knew the limitations of foreigners and did everything possible to compensate for my travel inexperience. Noting my depression, he gently took me aside and unfolded a plan. This would be assured to get us on our way again.
“Look, each bus has a half-door driver’s entrance. We’ll have to use that door while the crowd fights at the passenger entrance. I’ll jump through that door when the next bus arrives. You lift the luggage to me, and then follow me in.”
The only difficulty with our plan was it had to be accomplished with the cooperation of the driver. He normally sat in his driver seat blocking the entrance during stops.
The driver was surprised at the initial onslaught on his privacy, and was livid with rage by the time luggage had been dragged in, and I’d crawled over his lap to enter the bus. He advanced down the aisle to where we were settling comfortably in our seats and ordered us off his bus, but was swept back to the driver’s seat by incoming passengers as they finally broke through the rear entrance, surging forward to fill every inch of space that vehicle had to offer.
We spent ten minutes listening to the driver as he shouted over the heads of the crowd. We were the object of everyone’s attention. Passengers showed a grudging respect for us having beaten the system, but they resented the delay. Finally, the angry bus driver resumed his seat and moved the bus onto the road to Trivandrum.
The driver worked his anger out on the road. With screaming motor and clashing gears he aimed his vehicle down the road at breakneck speed. We missed vehicles by centimeters as we hurtled past them. Pedestrians and animals beat a hasty retreat from village streets as we sped through, and mobile street stalls were hastily wedged into doorways as the thundering bus approached. Under normal circumstances an Indian bus buzzes with conversation as travelers share information on their families, and pass the time of day. On this trip not a word was spoken. Faces, pinched with anxiety, peered through the window, bodies recoiling at each near miss. The Christians on the bus were constantly crossing themselves.
On our arrival in Trivandrum passengers alighted silently, milling around as their luggage was handed down from the roof luggage rack. The bus driver clambered down from his seat and went around the back to supervise luggage distribution. He was quite relaxed now, and nodded pleasantly to us as we dragged our luggage out of the bus and headed shakily for an auto-rickshaw stand. He’d worked his anger out on the road, and was now at peace with the world. The rest of us were still in shock.
Finally Ramesh spoke. “I think we’d better make sure the Trivandrum office gets us reserved tickets for our home journey.”
I nodded enthusiastically as I hailed an auto-rickshaw.
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