Shimla bus station was hardly a hive of activity in the pre-dawn chill of a December morning as my travelling companion and I tried to locate the bus to Dehra Dun.
“Over there, Sir”, pointed the tired man in the ticket booth, indicating a deserted, antiquated bus in the corner of the depot. There was no driver or any sign of activity indicating an imminent departure but the door was unlocked and as it would be marginally warmer inside than out we chose seats and waited. Perhaps the advertised 7am departure time had been changed?
I walked back to the ticket booth, now surrounded by a travellers forming a disorderly queue and shouting questions in Hindi, to ask again about the possibility of the bus leaving anytime soon. Reassured that we were indeed waiting in the correct vehicle, I bought two cups of hot tea from the next door chai stall and returned to my seat. Gradually the bus began to fill with people and a teenage boy squeezed his way along the aisle selling tickets. Through the open windows arms were thrust offering for sale nuts, water, a copy of The Hindu…
Sometime around 9am a man dressed in ubiquitous khaki took the steering wheel and the engine rumbled into life. We were off and I looked forward to a day travelling through the Himalayan foothills. By now Shimla was a mass of motorbikes, rickshaws, bikes and cars all jostling for space but we were soon out in countryside and heading down a mountain road leaving the high Himalaya in the distance and passing through hills alongside a river, white with glacial melt, and tumbling down to join the great rivers of the northern plains.
“Bas, bas, bas!” Hindi for ‘stop’ was called out at regular intervals as we dropped off and picked up passengers. The rooftop luggage rack was piled high, the bus was standing room only and we felt glad to have arrived early and secured seats, even if the comfort of these was rudimentary at best. With the frequency of stops we also realised our mistake of opting, in the name of economy, for a ‘local’ rather than an ‘express’ service. However, the day was now pleasantly warm, mountains stretched into the distant haze and I had a good book and music so settled into the rhythm of the journey.
The peace was shattered by a loud bang and the bus slewed from side to side before coming to rest at the roadside. A blowout. At least we had stayed on the road and no doubt before long we would be under way. Half an hour passed. My music had finished. Feeling restless I joined the group of passengers crouching at the roadside looking at the remains of the tyre and offering opinions as to what to do now.
After an age the spare wheel was brought down from the roof and more discussion followed between the driver and his apprentice. There was no wheelbrace and so the damaged wheel was stuck solid on the axle. We were going nowhere. A few lorries passed by but this was a quiet country route and assistance was not going to arrive quickly. A motorbike was flagged down and the teenager was dispatched as a pillion passenger to summon help from the next village. I sat on the roof in the midday sun and my thoughts turned to home and the family Christmas I would be missing the following week. The days newspaper now read and my biscuit supply I felt frustration and wondered if we would ever reach Dehra Dun.
Eventually the teenager returned with the required tools and before long we were on our way again. Having spent much of the morning looking ahead through the windscreen I could see nothing obviously wrong with it and so was surprised when we stopped at the next town and the driver disappeared for a long lunch. Whilst he was gone the windscreen was removed, cleaned and replaced delaying our departure further.
The advertised arrival time now long gone, the afternoon passed by slowly. Looking around the bus we seemed to be the only ones in for the long haul from Shimla and so it was with a feeling of relief that we arrived, at dusk, in Dehra Dun some 5 hours late, hungry and aching. Next time, I resolved, we would pay more for speed, comfort and reliability.