The place I didnt want to be

India, somewhere between McLeod Ganj and Manali on a government bus. For ten hours throughout the night we were beaten heavily into the metal bars and thrown off our staunchly upright seats by a driver intent on sending the bus flying down a mountain. We bumped and whizzed round the sharp curves whilst clutching the seats in front, knuckles white and becoming numb. The air was cold. There was no point in using my thin Egyptian scarf as a blanket – I had tried several times and it had slipped from my lap every time I had to reach my hands out for safety, which was often.

At least we both had seats. Earlier in the journey we were among the unlucky standing passengers, until a couple of hours in when some room was made for each of us – me next to a tiny new wife and Paul some way back next to her snack-sharing older husband. The seating is often unofficially segregated like this in India. Buses are where women receive one of their few perks. On a busy bus, men will always give up their seats to women – quite a gallant gesture for an otherwise unbelievably chauvinist population (a subject for another article). It is also assumed that women would rather sit with an unknown woman with no common language and have countless young daughters plonked on their laps rather than with a male friend or partner, hence the segregation. This couple fortunately spoke good English. They were very welcoming, although rather depreciative of their own country. Looking out the window at yet another stinking pile of rubbish, the wife sighed and said “I think your country is neat and clean.” Thinking of some of the dingier areas of London, but then comparing them to what we had just passed, I reluctantly agreed.

At one point during the night, the bus stopped for a refreshment break. Leaping at the chance to stretch our legs and finally go to the toilet, Paul and I got off and searched the area around the dhaba (cheap café) for the spot. Our search was futile. We were advised to use the unlit space around the back of the parking area. We discovered an open sewer dug only shallowly into the concrete. The darkness was the only guarantee of privacy, as there was another road just next to it with cars whose passengers would have got an eyeful had it been daylight. I squatted awkwardly whilst Paul did his business just a few metres away. Just before going to rinse our hands at the tap outside the dhaba, it happened. Paul slipped. His entire flip-flop shod foot entered the sewer and the contents now covered his foot and the bottom of his trouser leg.

Nearly a year later, Paul still shudders horribly when I muse what might have happened had his foot had a small cut or graze on it the night that happened. A particular urban legend comes to mind about a girl who for some incomprehensible reason licked the bottom of her shoe after a day exploring the streets of Delhi, and died. Rinsing as thoroughly as possible under the sputtering rusty tap, Paul’s squelching back on the bus brought lots of wrinkled noses and expressions of horror from our fellow passengers. The stench was unbearable. Paul threw the offending shoe into a plastic bag kindly donated to him and fumbled in his backpack for his trainers.

Manali was beautiful though. It was almost worth the journey.

S L Allan

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