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A hellish busride to Jaisalmer


There’s somebody sleeping my bed!’ The scenario was akin to something straight out of ‘Goldilocks.’ But it was true: there really was somebody tossing and turning upon the mattress that I was poised to acquaint myself with.

I’d just stepped on to a bus bound for the fortified desert town of Jaisalmer, India. The preceding two days had been spent exploring Pushkar’s world-famous Camel & Horse Fair. No long-distance buses departed direct from Pushkar, so it was necessary to take a slow local bus along the hairpin bend-anchored road through the mountains to Ajmer, the nearest city of repute. Given that it was the final night of the annual Camel Fair, the firework-fuelled feast of a climax meant that the traffic flow in and out of Pushkar had been altered to the extent that the only way out of the town was by what could only be dubbed ‘the scenic route’ – not that it was very scenic in the dark. The downside was that the detour was due to consume almost ninety minutes, and the ‘luxury’ bus to Jaisalmer was scheduled to leave Ajmer at ten. We rolled into the middle of the back of beyond at nine, so hope of reaching our connecting bus on time significantly diminished by the minute. Pausing at a random check-point, everybody including the driver hurriedly de-bussed for a ten-minute huddle. I remained seated near the back of the bus, staring through the window at the piercing constellations hung above the profile of the nearest mountain range. I wondered what my girlfriend in England might have been doing. I also wondered what had led me to being animatedly suspended in the Indian wilderness with little more than a few hundred rupees to my name. Unfairly cursing the truth expounded by my watch, I willed the driver to return to his seat in order to engage forward motion once more. Confident that my psychic abilities had been improving, I was woefully disappointed when the driver loped further away from the bus: in search of a toilet. I considered such a respectable course of action to be extremely strange, especially when most Indian men simply unzip or drop their trousers at the side of the road, in full view of anybody and everybody. In no respect are they shy.

We hit the road again ten minutes later, when – in fact – it was the potholed road that hit us. As we coyly bounced around a corkscrew of corners, the freaky creak of the vehicle’s suspension heralded nothing but bad news. Wedged between my backpack and a handrail, my arm came to hate my funny bone. In turn, my funny bone lost its sense of humour, demanding a dictionary in order to look up the meaning of ‘funny.’ In the wake of groaning up a mild gradient, we crested a hill. Below us lay what could only be described as Utopia: a dense patchwork of linear lights criss-crossing an expansive valley. Dropping into Ajmer reminded me of my approach to Salt Lake City after a tortuous journey clean across the canyon-contoured glory of Utah which had been beautified yet isolated by heavy snowfall four years beforehand. Ecstatic to see the city, I could have kissed the driver were he not wrestling the steering shaft to snapping point. I had twenty minutes to spare: ample time to score and devour a bowl of rice.

The ecstasy inspired by eating was short-lived.

A deluxe bus had been promised. It had been depicted on posters in the travel agent’s paperwork-heaped bureau. The balding travel agent himself had personally assured me that the bus to Jaisalmer would be the very best to be seen peeling along Indian roads. Encouragingly, the agent had been at the departure point when I’d arrived, but he fled amidst a duststorm of suspicion just five minutes before the dented wreck of the Jaisalmer-bound bus honked its repulsive arrival. I couldn’t believe my eyes. ‘Jaisalmer! Jaisalmer!’ hollered a man hanging out of the door as the glorified shed shuddered to a halt. Sensing that I’d be joining him for the ride, the guy beckoned me over. ‘Hurry! Hurry!’ he spat. I might have been in a position to gain a tad more momentum had I not been weighed down by a backpack.

As I attempted to make headway along the gangway to my designated sleeper berth, a jamboree of passengers hustled towards me, elbowing for an inch, ushering me backwards. The bus was clearly no place for a backpacker: space was at a premium. I looked around, first at the decrepit state of the bus, and then at the passengers. Almost all of the passengers were Indian men. Judging by their wide-eyed expressions, they seemed surprised to see a foreigner on-board. Squeezing to the far end of the gangway in due course, I literally searched high and low for my berth: the numbers were hard to find. My berth for the journey was right in the corner. Shame there was no floorspace upon which I could drop my backpack. Even worse, the berth was thrumming to a man’s snoring. Indeed, it’s common for those with seat reservations to keep sleeper berths warm on the sly. Shaking the man’s elbow, I urged him to wake up. He was out cold, feasibly flat-lining. His buddies on the back seat laughed at my apparently futile plight. ‘Excuse me – you are in my berth!’ I said as softly as I could, yet loud enough for him to hear. His nostrils twitched, but only in response to a fly that had settled upon his beak. It was time to hail the cavalry: the so-called conductor. In spite of initially laughing along with the backseat reprobates, he roused the man by dead-arming him. The doe-eyed imposter might have taken half a minute to recover from the shock, but he soon got the message.

In one fell swoop, I eased my arms from beneath the straps of my backpack and flung the bulky burden through the gap between the sliding plexi-glass doors. With all eyes on me, I sought suitable footholds on neighbouring berths to aid my ascent. Once ensconced within what can best be described as a mobile grave, I shuffled my bones into what approximated to a horizontal position, keen to sleep for as much of the overnight ride as I could. The excitement of the Camel Fair had wiped me out.

I’d supposed that a comfortable state of repose would be easy to attain. However, I’d failed to factor in the disquieting stares emanating from the gangway-crowding men, not to mention a window which refused to stay shut for longer than thirty seconds at a time. I was cocooned in an unapologetic state of hell worse than sedated society ruled by routine. Disturbingly, there could be no chance of escape until the breathtaking fortifications of Jaisalmer hove into view. The journey had just begun, yet I already wanted to stagger down the gangway and plead for salvation. Rod Steward might have once believed that ‘the first cut is the deepest,’ but that’s not the case at all, for the never-ending bus ride between Ajmer and the edge of the Thar Desert went a long way to prove that every nick, knock and cut can be as deep as the one that precedes – if not deeper.

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