That was the most terrifying bus ride I’ve ever had to sit through, and I thought I’d lived through a lot of death-defying rides.
Every overnight bus we’ve ever ridden–from Peru to Bolivia to India–I always woke up at our destination feeling as if it were a miracle that we survived the night unscathed.
The way the drivers maneuvered their hulking vehicles of mass destruction, I was barely able to sleep… and when I did, I was plagued with dreams of the bus careening off the road and tumbling down the side of the mountain, on and on til we stopped at the bottom in a fiery heap of luggage, human guts and scrap metal.
This bus ride, however, I was wide awake for. Even more awake than I was when the bus started ascending the mountains, actually.
Our destination: Munnar, a hill station in the midst of a sea of plantations.
All through the terrifying ascension, Xiker was like a schoolboy, sitting in front on the lefthand side and laughing gleefully with every close call.
Me, I was sitting on the right side, directly behind the bus driver, with only a few iron bars dividing me from what I thought would be certain death.
The first few hours after leaving Kottayam, the driver seemed to be going at a leisurely pace, and I thought I liked the dude because he didn’t, like many many other drivers, feel the need to blare the horn every 30 seconds.
But once we hit the base of the mountains, just as the sun was sinking under the trees, he slammed down on the gas pedal and roared around every tight turn.
And while he was wheeling the bus this way and that, he would take his hands off the wheel to smooth down what was left of his grey hair, and a few times, pulled out a brush to comb his beard.
As if he were in a hurry to get home to his mistress, as if he wasn’t driving a ten-ton bus full of people.
My knuckles were white from gripping the iron bars, and I was vainly trying to keep from sliding all over the seat and crushing the little girl and her diminutive mother beside me.
There were lots of signs–by lots I mean there was one every 500 meters– cautioning drivers to SLOW DOWN, DANGEROUS CURVES, DRIVE CAREFULLY.
There were more ominous signs. “When care dies, accidents happen.”
Another was poetic. “Drive with care, life has no spare.”
But the driver seemed to take the signs as a personal affront. The bus roared louder as we passed the first SLOW DOWN sign. He probably thought to himself, ‘Me slow down? Pshaw! I’m a GOOD driver!’
I looked around, trying to find reassurance that the bus driver was indeed crazy, but nope. Everyone looked as bored as they had for the last 5 hours, and the two tiny females beside me had fallen asleep. I pressed my lips into a thin line and gripped the bars tighter.
The bus screeched and screamed with every sharp curve, and barely moved aside for oncoming vehicles.
Earlier, I had reasoned with myself, in my poor deluded head, that since we’d be plumbing the jackknifed turns up the mountains at nighttime, it would be easier for the driver to spot oncoming traffic and thus avoid collisions… or at the very least, avoid too-close shaves.
It was as if the driver knew that, as the biggest and baddest motor vehicle on the hill, everyone else would just move the hell out of the way.
It worked, most of the time, until something bigger came along.
When that happened, with huge headlights looming in the distance, it was like a game of chicken (where two cars are driving at each other… first one that swerves out of the way loses).
When, all too soon, the oncoming bus proved itself to be the Titanic or Mauritania of buses, our driver would shake his head somewhat forlornly as he moved aside for it. I think he felt he ought to be the one driving those set of wheels.
Just when we were getting close to Munnar, the tail end of our bus screamed as it scraped the end of another bus that was passing us.
With that jolt, I swallowed a scream and looked around, but, again, nobody else looked concerned, and Xiker just cackled away as the driver smoothed down the back of his head for the umpteenth time.
We did NOT get to Munnar fast enough, even though we arrived 45 minutes earlier than expected. I emerged from the bus with jellied legs, and would have kissed the sweet ground… But I had to dodge all the rickshaw drivers who were each trying to lure us into going to their uncle’s guesthouse for a “good price.”