Indian Tales 4 – Night Bus

I’ve never been very good at sleeping when travelling. I can’t get comfortable sat upright. But then I have never tried a proper night bus. You know the type; curtained off flat beds, often on two levels and an invisible journey through the night.

I booked the tickets with a degree of regret and trepidation. We were hoping to travel to Madurai, a city of over one million, in central Tamil Nadu. The plan had been to get a train, but every seat was gone, on every train. Millions were heading to the city to celebrate Pongal, a multi-day Hindu harvest festival celebrated by Tamils. The city would double in size. So, we booked a night bus, it was all that was available.

The tuk-tuk driver struggled to find the travel company we had booked with. The tumultuous Chennai road had dozens next to, and on top of, each other. I leapt out and wandered about. The small office was tracked down and a minibus pointed out. Apparently, this would take us to our bus rendezvous at some time in the future.

It was too hot to wait in the bus. I stood alongside, chatting to an Indian man about my age who was going further south than us.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

The usual enquiry. I told him and we exchanged stories of English cities. He didn’t know Wales.

Finally, we departed into the mad traffic, but at least there were windows open and a warm breeze.

Night had fallen. All about us were tuk-tuks, scooters, motorbikes, cars, lorries and buses, scurrying about like rats leaving a sinking ship. Our driver dodged in and out of real and imaginary lanes, everyone was heading home. As we made it onto a main road I thought, “At least we’ll make good time now.” Don’t be daft, Lee. Road bumps and police checks kept us crawling amongst the endless traffic. I spent the time counting motorbikes and scooters – rear lights working vs not working. A hundred bikes later the results were in: it was a draw, only half had rear lights working.

Nearly two hours later we pulled into to a carpark. Toilet stop; the queue was immense.  A while later the driver had been in contact with our coach and discovered that it was delayed. How unusual. We did a loop back and parked in the restaurant area opposite. The toilets were used, some bought food. We munched on snacks, walked about outside, and talked about the swastikas above the juice bar and hotel.

Historically swastikas are distributed widely throughout the ancient and modern world.  It is a letter in Sanskrit that means luck or well-being. Throughout Asia it is used as a symbol of prosperity, and in India the swastika continues to be a widely used auspicious symbol in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Of course, in the West we recognise it as the emblem of the Nazis, and as such its appearance elsewhere is a surprise to us.

Some period much later than scheduled, we returned to the meeting point and our coach pulled in. Climbing up the steps I was reminded of the film, Some Like it Hot, and the curtains on the sleeper train that Marilyn, Tony and Jack take to escape the mob. The upper bunk we had booked was a steep clamber up a metal runged ladder to a double bed. A large flat screen TV was blaring an Indian crime caper as we settled in.

Dinah got immersed in the film and I read my book, but after the next toilet stop all the lights and TV went off and we turned in. The rocking motion was quite calming, even if the road bumps still shook, but we drifted off to sleep and were awoken just before 4am, we had arrived.

I had booked us to the nearest stop to Madurai identified on the travel company app. It was a city ring road, but as we descended to claim our bags, we realised that we were the only departees and the roads were deserted. The ring road was above us; we were on a lower level roundabout. There was nothing about; no traffic, no toilet (which was needed) no shops and no people. What were we going to do? I may have vocalised that thought; the coach driver pointed to a solo tuk-tuk parked two hundred yards away, on a road bank.

As we walked closer, trailing our bags and wondering where the hell we were, I spied a foot sticking out one side of the tuk-tuk. I stood over looking in, a rotund man was sprawled carefully across the seat, legs balanced on the side, one arm tucked into padded hook and bent to support his head. He was deep asleep. I said hello a few times, but had to poke a leg before he came to. Understandably dazed, he took a while to realise what we were saying and what we needed. Fortunately, he knew the hotel, we negotiated a price and set off.

A mile further towards the city we passed a bus station, with our coach sitting boldly on one side. People were milling about the restaurants and shops. Dozens of tuk-tuks decorated the road in. Why the hell weren’t we dropped off there? No matter, our driver got us to the hotel before daylight and we collapsed into our bed. Madurai could wait until after breakfast.

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