The Bus will leave on Monday 7.30pm: For Kabul ($28) Teheran ($55).
The sign, scrawled in pencil on a ragged page of an old copybook, is taped on a side-window of the bus. It’s an old, yellow, German-made, single- decker touring bus – not the Volkswagen-style camper popular at the time – with tinted windows curving upwards and inwards to become the roof. Designed to catch the European light the transparent roof has three plastic skylights which can open to catch the breeze. The roof is now shaded with straw matting and Indian wall hangings to protect occupants from a harsher sun. A blue stripe is painted on each side and in unpretentiously small letters, is written over the stripe, “The Bus”. It has a comfortable, dependable look: possibly a too hasty judgement.
It is parked off Connacht Circus in the centre of Delhi. I arrive with my backpack at 7.20pm. The front of the bus is jacked high in the air; an Indian and a young English man, who has a shock of bright-red, unruly hair, are working underneath the motor.’ Red’, his arms greasy, is co-owner of the bus. He is wearing only a green velvet waistcoat, a pair of loose cotton pants and a pair of flip-flops. He moves in long, bouncy, noisy strides and laughs at unexpected times.
Passengers dressed hippy style, stand watching the engine repairs and some dozen locals are staring at the strangely clad passengers. I get on; inside a girl, staking her space, is already lying on a bed mat watching out through half-closed eyes. A handsome young man with dark curly hair is seated near the front and playing a long, slender, silver flute. A pair of crutches is propped beside him; he has iron braces on both legs. Anthony, whose body is withered from the waist down, is Italian.
A young boy approaches the bus dragging by the hand a much younger girl. He’s obviously teaching her how to beg but she’s shy and reluctant. The older boy, probably a brother, mischievous and intent on his teaching does not notice the large policeman approaching. The boy is cuffed on the head and slashed across the legs with a long bamboo, a ‘lathi’ which all Indian policemen carry. They scuttle away crying.
Before leaving, Red announces: “I have some bad news for you folks. I’ve spent 600 Rupees getting the starter motor fixed but it’s still not working. You’ll have to push it to start, but it’s easier than it looks”. He laughs.
As we search our way out through sprawling Delhi suburbs some are already softening hashish and mixing it with some tobacco to roll a joint or in most cases to fix a chillum. The chillum is a straight Hindu pipe, widening towards the end but without a bowl; it needs a little practice to use properly. It is held upright in clasped palms and the smoke is sucked through joined thumbs. Most of the passengers seem adept and the smell of black Afghani hash becomes the prevailing one for the trip. Red, driving, stops the bus for a moment, clasps both hands round the stem of a pipe and sucks long and deep, several times. He laughs.
A New Zealand traveller cries indignantly, “But Red told me I could pay half in Kabul.” The second co-owner of the bus, quickly named The Weasel, is taking the first name of each of the nineteen passengers and asking for payment. He is a tall, thin, extremely pale young Englishman; his straight blonde hair falls permanently over one eye. He has a pointed nose, thin lips, a sharply pointed chin and two black roots remaining as two front teeth. He speaks from one side of a barely opened mouth; his eyes are watery and vague.
Leaving the chaos of the city behind we bounce along the road to Amritsar and the Pakistani border. We are on the hippy trail which, traditionally, leads from Istanbul to India while sampling the oasis points of Kabul and Kathmandu. Thousands of young people have followed this trail over the years searching for something or other: something as concrete as good hash, as abstract as spiritual identity. Some have done it for three months; some have never gone home.
“Where are you going?” I ask the young Sri Lankan sitting beside me. “I go Teheran”, I have friend Teheran. I meet friend, maybe I work. Maybe my friend has job.” He avoided speaking during the trip, staring out the window with an apprehensive detachment which may have been shyness or homesickness.
The Bus has mattresses, seats, and a chest of drawers in the forward section and in the rear some carpets and cushions on which passengers sit, which they do – often in meditation mode.
Red drives all night. We stop regularly to fill two large plastic containers with water. When Red flicks on the roof lights, whoever is awake lifts a section of the floor and douses the overheating engine.
Next day we reach Amritsar, capital of the state of Punjab and home to the Golden Temple: a sacred place for the turbaned Sikhs. We park in front of the train station and excite the usual curiosity. Rickshaw drivers and restaurant waiters vie for our attention. “They have everything in there”, a sophisticated middle-aged Indian lady impeccably attired in an expensive sari and who has braved up to the door to peep in, exclaims to her friend. “Yes”, I remark, “and we have an orchestra and dances in the evening”. “Really”, exclaims the lady. My witty, ironic remark falls flat.
From a distance I know what they want as they advance towards me. A young white couple, their determined, larger than normal smiles betray them; they want to save me. I know they are from the ‘Children of God’ sect, busy in India at the time. They’ve crossed my path before. In Cochin a beautiful American girl promised me every pleasure if I shared my belongings and future with the group. A shout, “We’re leaving”, from Red saves me. As we pull out, I see them heading vigorously for a backpacker alighting from an incoming train.
The Pakistani emigration official looks intently at Mohan’s German passport. “You’re waiting for trial”, he says, prodding his finger at a page. Mohan, sporting a Ho-Chi-Minh beard, black curly hair sprouting in many directions, one gold earring, a purple velvet waistcoat, Indian dhoti trousers, and a permanent half smile, produces an official looking paper: he’s allowed to proceed. Relatively speaking, I feel dressed like a Bank Manager compared to Mohan.
An irate customs official asks to see the bottle of whiskey noted on an Australian passenger’s entry form. Australian: “It has been consumed”. Official: “You try make joke with me?” After changing a flat tyre and the driver-The Weasel slides into Red’s seat- a concerted push gets us on our way.
At the back a young Irish ‘round-the-world’ backpacker, who has picked up some hip expressions, is recounting one of his experiences. “Hey man, you should have seen it, there was this old guy-he must have been seventy-and he was on his s-i-x-t-h (emphasised strongly) pipe of the evening.” This Calcutta opium-den story stirs little interest, maybe because of the intense heat. “These drug stories really get exaggerated”, John, a New Zealander, says quietly. I, who have never been in an opium den, can only reply, “Maybe they are like fishing stories.”
“Afghan boots are sheet”, a moody looking French passenger announces suddenly.” I bought these in Spain five years ago”, he points to the boots he’s wearing. “I’ve ridden my motorbike with theem all over”, his French accent is strong – he lengthens vowels alarmingly, maybe purposefully.
“It’s an emergency”, The Weasel shouts from behind the wheel,” Has anybody got a chillum? I need some dope.” Red sleeps. The Weasel lets the engine die twice and we pile out to push. “Red has it together but this guy…,” somebody mutters.
Going on midnight The Weasel pulls onto the marketplace of some small Pakistani village and announces dramatically: “The brakes are gone, they’re worked by air, there’s no air – no steering.” Lifting a flap in the floor we see a loose pipe. “Look at that, nothing we can do with that”, The Weasel says from the corner of his mouth, waves his hands and goes to look for a teashop. Some drift after him and some sleep. Later, Ian from London, “I’ve done a little sailing”, checks out the pipe and repairs it. We lurch forward into the night. “You know, they have no bloody tools on this bus. It was only a loose sprocket. They never even checked it”, Ian mutters.
While Red sleeps Mohan stays awake to fetch water for engine cooling. In the morning we see we have made little progress. We have two wheels stuck in roadside mud and The Weasel is dozing over the wheel. With the dawn and the help of some amused locals and a passing bus we manage back onto the surfaced road.
Red decides to take responsibility from then on and after swallowing some pills and sucking an early-morning chillum he shouts, “Has anybody Pakistani rupees, we need some gas?” He laughs.
Peshawar is an overnight stop and visas from the Afghani Consulate. Some seize the chance for a proper bed and shower and some, including Red and Mohan, head for a local opium den: Red has been this way many times before. I go to the ‘Government Bungalow’, a hostel for civil servants and travellers where I had stayed some years before. I find a pile of charred timbers: the aftermath of political riots. I sleep in the garden on a mat bed and the manager, who is guarding the ruins, offers me a pipe of hashish: a peace offering, a nightcap. Large but inoffensive black ants climb all over me in my uneasy slumber.
Visas done, Red announces he is taking the bus away, “To have the radiator fixed”. We walk around town. The sun is aggressive but in the fasting month of Ramadan it is difficult to find a place to shelter. A tiny place serving lorry drivers is open; it has a blanket hung over the entrance to cover the inflammatory scene of people eating during the day. When leaving, a Pakistani lorry driver stands silently in front of Anthony looking at his withered legs. He gestures something between pity and disapproval with his hands and, without a word but maybe thinking, “If it’s Allah’s will, he must have deserved it”, and pushes through the blanket. Anthony gives one of his sad smiles and raises his eyebrows: “Nothing’s sacred”, a New Zealand girl whispers.
‘Radiator fixed’ we head for the Khyber Pass with the road rising and twisting between small hills whose brown-grey contours became sharper. Houses have a low uniformity and are protected by high walls from dust storms and sweeping winds.
As the road rises so does the thirst of the engine for cooling draughts of water. “I wonder what they did with the radiator in Peshawar”, somebody muses. “Nothing”, retorts another, “There are many hiding places on a bus like this.” He chuckles.
A large wooden sign stands at the entrance to the Khyber Pass where we pay a toll. In very large letters is painted: “Foreigners are forbidden to leave the Highway”. A tribesman, a homemade rifle slung over his shoulder, watches us indifferently.
Forbidding rocky mountain walls narrow and widen as we snake alongside an almost dry riverbed through the famous pass. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan passed this way and more recent history has left some traces too; huge concrete blocks dot the slopes of the pass – laid by the English to prevent possible German tank movement in WW 11.
Giant stone fortresses straddle high vantage points. Many, crumbling and abandoned, are redundant in their solitude but some remain occupied. One, identifies itself in stones painted white and laid out on the slope in front, ‘The Khyber Rifles’.
Somewhere in the Pass, somebody gets the news – probably on a shortwave radio- that Elvis Presly has died. The news creates little reaction. Had it been Ravi Shanker the effect would certainly have been stronger.
We cross the highest point of the pass through an area regarded as lawless. “Last week in this area”, Red is laughing, “A tribal chief was killed in a collision with a bus. The tribesmen have kept the bus and the passengers as hostages since. They’re still up there somewhere.” He waves his hand vaguely towards the mountain.
The tribesmen we pass are handsome with the same attractiveness as the mountain rocks that surround them. Flinty faces with fierceness in their eyes; faces that occasionally soften into a smile like an evening sun softening the sharp outline of stones. Unlike lowlanders they do not initiate contact with travellers; they turn their backs in proud self-sufficiency. Women we do not see.
The Afghan official at the border demands $300: compulsory insurance.” That’s a rip-off, man”, shouts Mohan,” a rip-off”, striking the man’s table with the flat of his hand and stalking off. “I introduce him to our police”, exclaims the official, “We not like this kind of man in our country.” “He’s tired’, soothes Red, “We’ve been driving for a long time.” We pay $150.
We sit on the steps of the border post while we wait and watch the evening die into yellow and gold and the brownness of the mountain blur into blue and purple. A German camping-car pulls in and a girl passenger comes to ask for cigarettes.
“From here it’s all uphill to Kabul”, remarks Red, as we pass a sign telling us to drive on the right. During the night we scramble down the rocky slope to the river many times to fill the containers. “When will you go back to Europe?” I ask the Frenchman with the Spanish boots as we struggle up the slope with water containers. He seems surprised,” Europe is f* up, I don’t like iiit, I like iiit here. Maybe in a year or two,” he adds after a while.
Red’s finger is inflamed from an infection; a misty-eyed Australian girl offers to lance it. Sterilizing the needle with a lighted match, telling him to look out the window she lances it. The pus splatters on his bare chest and he laughs. “That was expert”, I say, “You must be a nurse”. With more than a touch of coyness she turns her head smiling and says, “No, I’m a doctor”.
I sleep. In the morning I find the bus empty. We are parked in the garden of “The Peace Hotel” in Kabul: just two days behind schedule.
Next day I go to Red’s hotel. “If you see any of the passengers tell them I’m having the radiator and starter fixed and we leave for Teheran Monday morning 10am.” “I’ll tell them”, I say, “But do you think they’ll believe me? “Red laughs. He, Weasel, Mohan, and the Australian doctor are lying on beds sucking chillums. They’re smiling so brilliantly that I feel enveloped by a kind of love: maybe just the hashish effect.
More by Donal Conlon in his very excellent ibook My Africa, available from Amazon.