By Sebastian Buchner.
Indian buses are strange breeds. They come in many shapes, sizes and versions, different stages of decay the connoisseur might call it – tourist office employees and owners will always try to get you on a super deluxe version, which usually means that it is rundown, about to fall apart but has a freezing cold air conditioning that cannot be turned off because the switches are all broken. The deluxe version cannot really be distinguished from the regular version, except by the price of its ticket. Some busses even offer the supreme comfort of your own private sleeping quarters. They consist of a curtained off box which is indeed large enough to sleep two people. Pure bliss, the travel-stained India traveler will say, until the bus reaches a bumpier stretch of the road and one notices the lack of hand-holds in the compartment box. Tumble drier or perhaps Deluxe Tumble Drier would be a more fitting moniker in such situations. Their bones thoroughly rattled, the overnight travelers arrive as if they had chosen to travel by torture chamber.
A local bus is, by comparison, actually quite comfortable. You strap you bags to the roof or squeeze them underneath your seat. There are no luggage wallahs hassling you for fifty rupees for the privilege of having your luggage travel with you. Sitting next to the door you might be required to slam it shut after every stop, signaling the driver by the metal slam that it is safe to proceed. Being a local bus it will get very full, of course, but the windows can be opened or closed at your own discretion and there is no freezing air conditioning and the driver is usually considerate enough (or too poor) to not have installed bass-thumping subwoofers.
The best thing, though, instead of being sardine-stuffed into a bus filled with tourists who are just as bewildered as you, you get to meet interesting people. A shepherd lady in colourful clothes I would later learn to associate with Kinnaur, greeted me in a delightfully throaty voice and asked where I was going. Reckong Peo. My home, she said. She was one of the many shepherds who spent most of the winter in warmer climes, shepherding on the hills of Western Himachal Pradesh. At least that was how she had started out. Now she spent almost all year near Dharamsala, only returning for festivals and family occasions. Farewell, brother. Her goodbye still rings in my ears. It had dignity and simplicity. I would encounter more of this. A young girl, smart as anything, spoke to me about God, life and science with a clarity beyond her years as a dhaba on a hillside at night seemed removed from the world, glared at by the lights of cars rushing ceaselessly by.
But, before all this happened the bus broke down ten meters outside of the bus stop. Turns out it was a good place to break down, because the driver somehow got it to the garage and it was swiftly repaired. Indians are exceedingly good at impromptu repairs. Because things always break down, the cynic might say, and yes that is part of the reason, but they also love to tinker with everything. You can find small repairmen’s huts in almost every village and dotted along the roads. Sometimes they have the required parts and sometimes they improvise – jugaad is the colloquial word for this, which is really more a type of behavior or even a kind of cult (at least the word is uttered with a similar glint in the speaker’s eyes) or a prideful way to express Indian innovative thinking. A quick fix, a workaround, an improvisation bypassing limitations of law, logistics and money. Of course you end up with jugaad vehicles (the origin of the word – a vehicle driven by an agricultural water-pump engine) that have no breaks and can only be made to stop by one of the passengers jumping out of the car and getting it to a stop by applying wooden blocks to the wheels…but nothing is perfect and if the resources are limited you make do with what you have.
The brakes of the bus were, fortunately, not too jugaad. To my great relief they also changed drivers every six hours. It’s not uncommon for jeep drivers to go for 24 hours without a break. The more maniacal even attempt to turn around with a new set of passengers straight away. Along with alcohol, those are the main causes of car accidents on the mountainous roads. People’s eyes fall close for a few seconds or the road blurs and they are airborne, skidding off the steep inclines to their deaths.
We drove along small roads and I could watch houses with small gardens pass by. People were working on small vegetable patches or tending flowers. Quiet suburban areas, very green, that seemed almost Mediterranean – an odd sight on the foothills of the Himalayas. When we left the villages I was reminded that India’s nature can be, despite all the pollution of the plains, absolutely stunning. We climbed up hills covered by pine forests, overlooked cliffs and ravines of some schist-y, fragile rock, dipped down into pleasantly cool forested valleys. Then it was back to the frenzy of typical Indian ant-hill busy villages. Shops and narrow streets that spilled people and vehicles. Faded colours and rusty signs proclaiming the “world best” something. Paan chewing, paunchy men and young boys and fragile ladies carrying trays with roasted nuts, sliced fruit, packaged juice. Cacophonous melodies of horns and voices. The ride was just beginning…
The images in this article are by the Swiss photographer Simon Villiger (http://www.simonvilliger.ch)
Author Bio: Sebastian Buchner is an artist and photographer from Vienna, Austria. Travel is his life whenever art isn’t. You can find more from him at http://www.sebasbuchner.wordpress.com – He also helps run http://www.openart.or.at – Painting and photography workshops all around the globe.