India: started from the bottom, now we here

This piece originally appeared on on March 17th, 2015.

Sometimes, wonderful experiences have horrible beginnings.

Two weeks ago I was on a bus from Mysore, Karnataka to Ooty, Tamil Nadu in India when the ticket taker looked at my ticket, and started speaking rapidly in Kannada. ‘Madame, ನೀವು ತೆಹ್ ತಪ್ಪು ಬಸ್ನಲ್ಲಿ !

sCourtyard with sun shing through. There is light blue wrought iron staircase, and windows that line the courtyard. There is a net covering the courtyard (presumably to keep birds out) There are two stone tigers at the mouth of the grand entrance of the courtyard.
Courtyard at Mysore Palace where wrestling matches purportedly took place.

I stared at him uncomprehending, sighed, and said, ‘I don’t understand Kannada’, to which he replied,‘ನೀವು ತೆಹ್ ತಪ್ಪು ಬಸ್ನಲ್ಲಿ , you don’t understand ನೀವು ತೆಹ್ ತಪ್ಪು ಬಸ್ನಲ್ಲಿ ???’  His voice kept getting louder, his words faster, and the eavesdroppers more eager, whipping their heads around to watch the commotion. The bus trundled on and I, now vaguely aware that I was on the wrong bus, puzzled about what to do.

I’d purchased a ticket for an air conditioned bus, and this one was the standard state-run bus with half-open windows as its only cooling device. In truth, I’d have been fine as long as I got to the same destination, but the ticket taker didn’t agree. He kept yelling, and I buried my face into my hands. ‘Well India, you’ve finally brought me to my knees‘ I thought as I prepared to cry, a grown woman on a bus full of strangers in another country conceding defeat. Just when the first tears were threatening to erupt I breathed deep and lifted my head. The ticket taker looked at me, and jumped off the bus.

He had spotted the bus I was supposed to be on, flagged it down, and gone to ask them to let me on. I heaved on my backpack and wobbled off the bus into Mysore traffic and onto the correct bus, where that ticket taker looked at me with disdain. We sped along a dusty gravelly road, jolting and shuddering until an hour later when we pulled into a rest stop. ‘Okay, only one hour to go!‘ I gleefully thought. As I waited, it started pouring and I felt thankful that this bus had closable windows. A fellow passenger (who looked a lot like Tobias Funke) sidled up to me and said, ‘Madame, are you sure you don’t want something to eat? We have another four hours left before our destination.’

I stared at him blankly, surprised at how I had gotten every detail about this journey so very, very wrong.

The prospect of four more bumpy, rainy hours on a windy unpaved road made me sigh deeply. Reading was out of the question, so I resolved to listen to music or podcasts to while away the time. To my horror, I found only two songs (2!!!) and an already played podcast on my iPad. (To my earlier horror, I’d left my iPhone in a taxi near a Bangalore train station, and refused to admit defeat until I wandered through the sea – literal sea – of taxis for 30 minutes searching for my driver in vain. I bought an iPad as a replacement.)

Just when I was about to start tearing out my hair, the bus bounced through a wildlife reserve and I saw a mother and baby elephant strolling around. We passed more elephants (one of which was being given a bath by a villager, waggling its ears in what I like to think was pure pachydermic delight), herds of tiny deer, and some beautifully antlered stag like creatures drinking from the river. There were trees in full bright red, yellow and pink bloom, and multicolored birds were darting about.

The discomfort of the bus ride melted away, and I eventually drifted off. I later woke to someone’s fragrant perfume. I looked around and saw we were climbing higher, and were surrounded by lush fields on either side; signs indicated that we were in the midst of tea and spice farms, and I realized that the wonderful smell was coming from them! The combination was unnameable, but try to imagine a mix of black tea, cardamom, floral, and cinnamon scents.

Green rows of tea leaves. Mountain in the background, covered with trees. Blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Heaven.
Green rows of tea leaves. Mountain in the background, covered with trees. Blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Heaven.

We climbed higher and my wonder increased as all of a sudden, impossibly tall trees shot up on either side of me. We were now driving through a Eucalyptus farm, and it looked like a Tolkein fantasy-scape that smelled like an aromatherapy session. When we emerged from the trees I saw the valley below, glittering gold with the now bright sun shining on the wet plants. We passed a procession of people carrying the body of a loved one, his dark brown face tinged with gray and the rest of his body covered in flowers. There was a young boy in the front of the procession, walking slowly with an older man’s arm draped over his shoulder.

Looking back, this bus ride feels stereotypical of my time in India: I saw many amazing things, was uncomfortable a lot, and will remember the trip forever.


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