As we said in the last post, our trip from Panjim to Mumbai was troubled, to say the least. We had to go to Mumbai to catch our flight out to Singapore, on the way to Bangkok, and the flight was on the 15th of December. Listening to some advice provided by other people who travelled in India, we applied the 2 day rule: If you have to be in one place, say on the 15th (for example, to catch a flight as in our case, or for any other important reason), go there on the 13th (but we actually took the night bus to Mumbai on the 11th). In India you never know what to expect. Even the impossible can happen. Moreover we wanted to have sufficient time to explore a city that promised to be worth a lot more than just a day.
Straight after buying the ticket we looked at terms and conditions overleaf and one item in the list caught our attention for being really hilarious. It said something like “Every individual passenger must pay a compulsory tip of 10 rupees for each person [a little redundant, isn’t it?] to encourage the total staff [total staff?] to serve you better”. The concept of compulsory tip was quite new to us but, hey, we were in India after all 🙂
So, at 7pm we jumped on this sleeper bus and took our bed – because against any expectations these were double beds, we got to sleep beside each other. But then I looked at the double sleeper at our right and at all the ones I could see from where I was, and I found it funny that being these all double beds, people who were travelling alone had to share the same (tight) space and sleep side by side with a stranger!
Soon the bus started moving and we made our way to Mumbai. We were both reading but after a while I turned on the side, put the book down and tried to sleep a bit, with no success. My eyes would pop wide open as soon as I tried to close them.
Now, I don’t know how long it was after we left Panjim, but at some point in time there was a strange noise and the bus stopped.
The driver and his assistant went out quickly and we tried to figure out what happened. However when some of us jumped off the bed and tried to get out, we found the door locked – yes there was a door at the end of the corridor, which separated the sleepers from the driver’s area at the front of the bus, but as I said it was closed. Some minutes later, probably just because we were knocking on that damn door, someone came and opened to us.
Once out we watched those two men fixing the bus and took advantage of this “down time” to socialize with other travellers. An hour later, the driver went back to his seat smiling and waving at us to invite us in again. So the bus was fixed and ready to go. Mumbai, here we come!
We went back to bed and tried to get some rest, again my eyes wouldn’t close so I played with my iPhone and read some more pages of my book. A couple of hours later we heard another loud noise as if the bus had hit something really strong with its back. The bus started to swing while still keeping its normal speed, and we, in the upper bed where shaken from right to left and left to right. I instinctively grabbed Romana with one arm to prevent her from falling, while with my other hand I grabbed the metal bar at the corridor end of the bed…
I was scared as it looked like the driver had lost control of the bus, while Romana who was sleeping but got awakened so abruptly, thought we were falling down some slope from the side of the road.
After a minute or so, the bus began going in a straight line and subsequently stopped in the middle of this countryside road.
Someone inside the bus started screaming “Thieves! Thieves! They stole our bags”. We ran out of the bus and realized its back was gone and some windows had broken. All the bags which had been stored at the back were not there as you would expect, except ours which had been squeezed in the boot first.
We could hear some Indian passengers screaming at the driver, but another guy asked them to stop and told them that their scream wouldn’t resolve the problem.
The owners of the lost bags went to look for them in group with a few torches and came back after a while. Fortunately everyone found their bags, some in the middle of the road, some in the bushes beside… The good thing was that the road was almost deserted and at that time (2.30am), just a few cars or trucks would pass by, making the task of recovering the backpacks a little easier and safer.
Apart from a guy that was sleeping in the back of the bus and got a few cuts in his harm, no one else got hurt.
Don’t ask me what happened because I don’t know. Probably the driver fell asleep, or perhaps the first time they fixed the bus they did something wrong, or both, or whoever knows what…
Finally everyone calmed down a bit. Along with the other travellers, we moved to the other side of the road and tried to figure out what to do. Some people had flights the day after (they didn’t apply the 2-day rule!), so they had to get to Mumbai on time. Others, like us, where not in a rush but still getting to Mumbai was a priority for all.
We tried to call the bus company to complain and hoped for a replacement bus, but obviously at that time no one answered. We tried also the information number and the police number on our guidebooks, hoping to find a way to get to the nearest city, but both numbers didn’t seem to exist! Can you believe that? What if we were in trouble?
Some of us got our iPhones out of our pockets to figure out where the hell we were and where the nearest city was. That’s when we understood that we were in the middle of nowhere, as many of us had feared. In the end, someone suggested that we’d all wait until morning to see whether some government buses would pass by and carry us on board.
In the meanwhile, to our disbelief, the driver and his assistant were trying to fix the bus rather than asking their company for a backup or some other form of help.
A bit before sunrise, some Indian passengers came to us, saying the bus was ready to go, as the drivers had fixed the bus and changed the wheels. “No way! I’m not getting into that bus again!” Most of us said.
A bit later, even those ones who wanted to go by bus had to change their plans and joined us on the side of the road. The bus didn’t have any battery left (they’d left the lights on all night until they faded out) and the drivers were asking passengers to push the bus the help start the engine – plus they didn’t even know if the brakes would work. Insane!
Later on I thought about that thing in the terms and conditions that said that we had to pay an obligatory tip of 10 rupees to the driver. None of us had given any tips to anyone in the end, so we joked that if we had paid, then everything would have gone smooth. But it was a bitter joke and nobody laughed that much 🙂
Finally the first rays of the morning sun lit the road and at around 6.30am a government bus came our way. We waved at it, it stopped and we jumped on. We agreed that the driver would drop us to the nearest city with a station, Ratnagiri, which was at around 2 hours from where we were picked up. At least (and at last) we were moving!
Once in Ratnagiri, we took a rickshaw and got to the station. We bought a ticket to Mumbai and a couple of hours later we were on this overcrowded train. Fortunately after a couple of stations we were able to take a comfortable sleeper and released a bit of the tension accumulated during the night.
After a six hours train ride, we approached Mumbai and the view from the window changed dramatically. Open fields were replaced by the slums, with their chaotic aesthetics and their bunch of huts which looked like they were built on top of each other. A few men here and there, squatting at the edge of the rail line were nonchalantly taking a crap in the open air, and from time to time local trains passed by, that were so packed that people would hang out of doors and windows.
In the meanwhile Romana was reading the last pages of a book that accompanied her for the last few weeks: Shantaram. As a part of the story told in Shantaram happens in Mumbai’s slums, the view outside the windows offered a perfect setting in which to finish the book.
When the train finished its ride we found out that we weren’t in the central station, but a little bit far away from it. Therefore the choice was between taking one of those local trains we saw earlier, and maybe end up squeezed with an arm or leg outside the door, or taking a taxi (rickshaws are not allowed in the city centre). Taxies were evidently and shamelessly overcharging non-Indian people, and we had to negotiate the fairest price possible.
The taxi drove through more slums right into Colaba, the most famous area in the city centre. As we approached the end of our taxi ride, everything looked more and more European, or at least broadly “western”: nice cafes, restaurants and shops, wide, clean avenues, colonial buildings and fashion-oriented youngsters.
Continues in the next post…