Terrified passengers screamed. The driver screamed at the oncoming traffic. A man’s body hung sideways into the roadway from his outstretched arm as he screamed into the night from the doorless step-well.
Horns honked incessantly. Heads went down into crossed arms wedged against the back of the seat in front of them, eyes pressed closed. Had we flown halfway around the world just to die? It surely seemed that way.
Fifty of us with our luggage, the driver and the yelling man lurched and rolled as the bus barreled down the Cochin Airport Road headed for Amritapuri. Our luggage was piled high across the double back seat where I, last to come aboard, sat on top of it. I held onto the poles that anchored the seats in front of me so that my arms were wrenched straight out to each side like Christ.
From my precarious and shifting perch I had an unobstructed view through the windshield and could see what was coming at us from each side as well. If we were going to be killed on this highway, I intended to watch.
Most of us had flown from San Francisco on the midnight flight to Singapore, where we spent nine hours before boarding our final flight to Cochin, in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. After gathering our belongings, passing through customs, changing dollars into rupees (thousands of them!), finding the Ashram bus in the midnight heat and dragging our exhausted selves and luggage on board, we were really feeling the strain of the nearly two-day trip and had expected to snooze our way south.
Instead, we learned the rules of the Indian road:
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Never stop. No matter what’s going on; if you stop, you lose.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Everyone yells all the time.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Everyone honks all the time.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ There are no traffic lights.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ The line dividing the lanes on a two-lane highway is just a suggestion.
People drive on any feasible bit of opening that presents itself. Even if that happens to be your lane, and the guy’s heading straight for you. He’ll quickly deek at the last second to avoid collision, passing you on one side or the other with a hair’s breadth to spare – anything to avoid stopping.
Adrenaline junkie that I am, realizing all this calmed me and I focused on the trip itself. We were driving on a straight, two-lane highway and in the absence of streetlights, the scenery was starkly revealed in the wedge of our headlights.
The screaming and honking became muffled as wonder for the world I was seeing for the first time replaced it. Nothing can prepare you for your first encounter with India. It is an assault on all of your senses all of the time. I wept with joy at the obvious signs of Spirit that dotted the highway as shrines of all shapes and sizes whizzed past too numerous to count.
Our headlights revealed the occasional pedestrian enjoying the relative cool of the night, dressed in exotic, flowing clothes. I watched each time as they appeared in the headlights, passed along the side of the bus then faded gently out of the red glow of our taillights into the night’s soft blackness.
A sudden monsoon downpour taught us to quickly lower the rolled wooden-slat shades to keep out the wet, then to quickly raise them as the rain stopped just as suddenly and the heat became immediately oppressive. Indian buses have no glass in the windows; instead they have horizontal steel bars to keep you safely inside.
Halfway into the four-hour drive south, our highway became a single-lane, dirt road. We slowed down a little, but not enough to still the screams. We were driving through a vast jungle of date and banana palms so thick that the starry sky was invisible above them.
There were more pedestrians here. They appeared on both sides of the road in the narrow spaces between the edges of the bus and the solid fence of found materials that edged the road on either side. I began to fear we might really kill someone.
We had flown over this jungle hours before as we made our way northward over the west coast of southern India. From above it seemed an unbroken carpet of deep green islands and peninsulas surrounded by milky green backwaters; all of this bordered on the west by the deep blue of the Arabian Sea.
On the ground, the jungle was not the pristine forest I had imagined. It was densely populated. Acres of small houses, crowded closely together and made from pieces of old billboards, corrugated aluminum and other found materials covered the ground between the palms as far into the surrounding darkness as we could see.
As the bus lurched and bounced in and out of the deep potholes, the driver wrestled the wheel and guided us forward. My arms began to shake so hard from the strain that I knew they’d let go if we continued much longer.
Then we stopped.
In the dark.
At once a thickly accented voice said in English, ‘We’re here. Please exit and collect your luggage.’
We stepped gingerly down from the step-well into the mud and blackness then rooted through the pile of luggage mercifully piled in front of the bus, within the lighted area of its headlights. A hand pointed into the black night, indicating the direction we were to walk.
The sound of the departing bus as we began our straggly march was the loneliest noise I have ever heard. We were left in deep darkness as the headlights disappeared. No one had a flashlight. We could see just a couple of feet in front of us so we stayed close together and felt our way along, proceeding gingerly across the muddy ground, testing for potholes, water and soft muddy places with our lead foot.
Our expensive rolling luggage was worse than useless on this terrain and had to be carried. Someone eventually located the Ashram wall and the news was whispered down the line, cheering us all. Tall and apparently endless, that wall was a welcome sign that we had really arrived. We followed it to the gate the driver said would be there, unfastened the huge wooden latch that held it closed, swung the huge thing open and entered the dark courtyard.
My heart sang.
We had reached Amritapuri and survived the Cochin Airport Road – we could handle anything now!
Note: For three years I’ve been telling friends about Indian bus rides. I’ve told them every bus has a driver and a yeller. The yeller yells from the stepwell to the driver and the traffic. He gets out when the traffic jams, goes to the back of the bus and yells at the driver and the traffic from there, pounding on one side of the bus or the other to indicate which way the driver should turn as he inches relentlessly forward or backward into the impossible tangle of vehicles, people and animals.
An Indian friend has just corrected me. The man is not a Yeller. He is a conductor. I apologize.