Thursday, December 23, 2004

Hell Ride to Hampi in the Cage of Death

"Maybe if I grab hold of that rail I'll be able to hold myself away from the tarmac" I thought as the bus careered on two wheels towards the black emptiness beyond the roadside. It's funny: you always wonder what will go through your mind the moment before you are killed horribly in a sudden accident; whether you will panic, start screaming and cling on to the old lady in the seat next to you, or whether you will remain calm and try to enjoy your last few exciting moments of life. Well, in those few moments while the bus was trying to decide whether to continue on it's wheels or on it's side, I managed to picture the entire pending disaster in my minds eye, and to be honest, it wasn't looking too promising. First I would be thrown against the window, which would promptly implode as the tarmac got to work on it. Then there would be nothing between me and the unpleasant prospect of being "grazed" to death. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself, let's backtrack a little.

So my mum arrived in Goa, and for a few days we enjoyed lazing around and enjoying the beach, but pretty soon we were all getting itchy feet. Then, one evening, we suddenly decided to leave the very next day and catch the sleeper bus to Hampi, which we had heard was a stunningly beautiful place to chill out. I had also heard that it was a complete nightmare to reach, with luxury buses turning out to be tin cans on wheels that drop you in the middle of nowhere etc etc. However, our minds were made up, and we bought tickets the next morning, and by 6pm we were sat outside the Paulo travels office in Mapusa being eaten by clouds of mosquitos and waiting for our first glimpse of our "luxury sleeper bus". Finally, an hour late, a small mini bus pulled up and someone started shouting "hampi! hampi!". After a moment of panic, we discovered that this was apparantly just the shuttle bus which would take us to the main bus in Panjim.

In Panjim we climbed aboard the bus that would be our home for the next 14 hours, and set about finding our seats. Mum and Joel had hit the jackpot, getting an upper berth bed right at the front of the bus. Me and Joanna were not so lucky. Our lower berth seat/bed didn't work, and despite numerous attempts to call over the steward bloke, we had still got no closer to a solution. In the end we managed to make him agree to let us take the opposite bed, and we tried our best to get comfy. After a few minutes a man came up the bus with a clipboard asking everyone to write down their name and adress and a list of what items they were carrying. He seemed very cheerful and we had a bit of a joke with him. In fact, to be honest he seemed pretty pissed, but I didn't think anything of it, I mean you don't have to be that sober to get a bunch of tourists to fill in a form.
After an hour or so, we stopped to have a piss break. As I was returning to the bus, the drunk guy, who was by now clearly hammered, started shouting at people. "Hey! Slow down! No hurry! This not train or plane! haha! Shanti!!". What a nice fellow, I thought. Little did I know that some hours later I would come close to punching his lights out.

Back on the bus I set about the arduous task of trying to sleep. Our bed was near the back of the bus, which in India is a baaaad idea. For some reason indian buses are designed with the wheels about halfway down the length of the bus, meaning that any movement in the front of the bus is amplified by a thousandfold by the time it reaches the back. This makes it less like a bus ride, and more like a fairground ride. I wouldn't be surprised if the indian military require all their fighter pilots to ride at the back of a sleeper bus at least once to test their resitance to multi-directional g-force. Anyway, by wedging myself in the bed, which is exactly the length of my body, I was able to fall into a kind of half sleep... until the crash.

I was awoken by a sound so horrible that I found myself instantly sat bolty upright. The first thought in my mind was that we had just hit one of the indian stall holders who have their portable stalls dangerously close to the edge of the highway. The sound had been of crunching metal, breaking glass, and screaming. Then suddenly my concern for the welfare of this imagined individual dissapeared as I realised that the bus was completely out of control and swerving violently towards the edge of the highway on two wheels. With the help of about a thousand different gods, we somehow ended up back on the highway, driving in a straght line, still at high speed. But the driver didn't stop. If anything he speeded up! About this time I realised that there was some commotion going on in the bed behind me. Joanna pulled back the curtain to find that the window over the couple behind us has smashed inwards and showered them in glass whilst they were in their sleeping bags.

Finally someone managed to shout at the driver to stop, and we started to try and sort out the mess and figure out what had happened. I climbed off the bus and headed around the back to inspect the damage. The entire back side of the bus was scraped and dented, and you could see where the window had been forced out of it's frame. I could see straight away what had happened. In india it is standard practice for buses to spend the entire journey dangerously overtaking trucks that they only have a 5 mph speed advantage over. This leads to continuous close shaves with the trucks coming the other way, who never slow down in the slightest, putting all their faith in the power of their horn and their karma. I have been in numerous close calls where the bus has swerved back onto it's side of the road and just avoided being clipped by a truck. Obviously this time it had been a little too close...

As I was thinking all this, the drunk guy from earlier came up beside me and started explaining what had happened. "You see! Truck coming here! But blinker still flashing! So I saying going left!". "I'm sorry, what do you mean YOU were saying going left?". "I driver!" he said, grinning at me. "But... but... your drunk!!" I spluttered, too shocked to be angry.. yet. "huh?", he stared at me prentding not to understand. "You're DRUNK!!!" i shouted, miming drinking from a bottle. "Ahhh, yes!" he said, still smiling. By now, a group of Indian men from the bus had begun to gather and were starting to understand the situation. They began shouting at the driver and occasionally pushing him and slapping him as he tried to profess his innocence.

After another ten minutes this was still going on but slightly calmer than before, and I started speaking with onme of the indian passengers. He explained to me that none of the indians on the bus had actual tickets, but had just paid the driver some baksheesh for the spare beds on the bus. Because of this, they actually had no authority to tell the driver what to do, and only one of the foreigners could really stop him from driving on. Minutes later I saw what they meant. Despite all of the abuse he had taken, the driver was back in the driving seat shouting at everybody to get on! Some of the tourists were climbing back on, and I suddenly realised that I had no choice but to get involved. I climbed up to the drivers seat. "Turn off the engine and get out of the drivers seat", I said in my most authoratative voice. "You go sit down now, no problem" he said, waving me away with his hand. "TURN OFF THE FUCKING ENGINE AND GET OUT OF THE BUS NOW!!!!", I shouted in his face. That got his attention, but still he was putting the bus into gear and getting ready to pull away, despite the fact that most people were still half on, half off the bus. "YOU WANT TO LOSE YOU JOB?!! YOU WANT TO LOSE YOUR JOB HUH??!! YOU WANT TROUBLE?!!", I shouted in his face, already wondering exactly what kind of trouble I was capable of giving him. Luckily this turned out to be enough and he grudgingly began climbing down out of the bus.

After further enquiries we discovered that there was another driver, who was only a BIT drunk. after all taking it in turns to smell his breath and ask him questions, we decided that we had no choice, and so with a group of indian men sat up front watching his every move, we set off once more.

As I'm sure you can imagine, sleep was not exactly easy for the rest of the journey, as every time the bus stopped I thought the drunken driver had bullied his way back into the driving seat and had to get up to check, but he soon went to sleep and I finally relaxed. Many very bumpy hours later we arrived in Hampi, and have been relaxing here since. Nothing exciting has really happened yet.. oh, except for accidently going swimming in a crocodile infested river... but that's another story... :)

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