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Travel Turkeys

The taxi driver

The bus in northern India was cheap but too disgusting. So they hired a cab to the Himalayas. Boy, was that a bad decision.

November 24, 2002|Amanda Jones | Special to The Times

I can't hope to compete with hard-core journalists when it comes to tales of front lines, terrorists, drug lords, pestilence, natural disasters, marauding beasts and psychopathic guides. My stories are feeble by comparison. I've only ever imperiled myself through blind gullibility, outright stupidity or the overconsumption of alcohol -- whether it was me or someone else doing the imbibing.

My most protracted flirtation with death took place in northern India, when my husband, Greg, and I were young and experiencing the developing world for the first time. Our destination on that brazier-hot day was Simla, a cool, forested Himalayan town once favored by the British Raj.

I don't recall how we got to Chandigarh. By that point, India had become an eternal journey on trains, planes, camels, bikes, rickshaws and elephants. I do, however, clearly remember the Chandigarh bus station. It appeared that half of India had converged on this particular place, resulting in a scene of flawless anarchy. No ticket booth was in evidence, but 30 decrepit, filth-streaked buses that were parked and driverless were crammed with passive-faced locals and topped with a motley array of luggage.

Greg swung into action, boarding each bus to inquire about its destination. I watched as Indian men swarmed to offer advice, swaying their heads back and forth in that indigenous subcontinental fashion.

"I think I found the bus," Greg said. "But I can't figure out if it's leaving in 10 minutes or 10 hours. It seems Simla is somewhere between three and five hours away."

It was only 9 in the morning, and already I sensed the rising dread that is the traveler's enemy. It foreshadows spiritual decline and a temporary obsession with the glories of home.

Boarding, I made the mistake of glancing down the bus. The streaks I had noticed from afar were rivers of encrusted vomit, and no window lacked one. Inside, the smell defied precise identification, except to conjure a fusion of putrefied meat, patchouli and body odor.

The only empty seats were on a hard, cracked-leather bench, pierced by a rusted spring. My humor returned fleetingly when Greg tried to sit down. At 6 feet 4 inches, he is a behemoth by Indian standards. His knees drove into the forward seat, forcing him to sit with his legs spread wide, leaving me only a few inches in which to stow my own limbs.

"Pardon me," I said to a trustworthy-looking mother. "How long is the ride to Simla?"

"Maybe six hours," she answered with a smile. "But not so great a time if no accident."

Accident?

I opened the Australian guidebook we'd neglected to read and saw that it called this particular transport the "chunder bus." (In Aussie slang, "chunder" means vomit.) These buses, it continued, traveled on one of India's most perilous roads, claiming hundreds of lives every year as they hurtled off sheer cliffs to rocky, irretrievable ends. Silently, I passed the book to Greg. He read, unfurled his legs, stood and announced, "We're taking a taxi."

There were no taxis. Once again Greg stalked off to investigate, returning with a scrawny man with bare feet and a razor-thin Errol Flynn mustache. He was radiant with shiftiness.

"Stay here," he said. "I find you taxi driver. Oh my, Simla looong way and only No. 1 brave man make drive."

Again we waited, the time marked by three buses that crept off in a foul cloud of unfiltered diesel. Finally we were led to a car, introduced to Vandan, its mannered driver, and told to get in and wait while he set things up. With relief we collapsed into the antiquated Indian-made car.

"How far to Simla?" I asked.

"Ah, three hours most. I get you there lickity-split quick. I am No. 1 best driver," he said. Greg and I settled in for a pleasant private ride.

Then something happened which, to anyone in her right mind, would have been a sign to get out of the car and run. A man stuck his head in the window and introduced himself. J.P. Kapoor had the air of an anxious do-gooder.

"I see you are the passengers of Vandan," J.P. Kapoor ventured. "I am his social worker. If there are any problems, any problems at all, just call this number. Remember that. OK?"

And he handed me a piece of paper printed with "Chandigarh Department of Social Services and Restoration," and his name and telephone number.

I don't recall my reaction. Maybe I thought the man was ensuring that the quality of taxi rides to Simla met international standards. Neither Greg nor I thought to ask what sort of problems he might be referring to.

An oddly thirsty driver

By the time Vandan returned, it was well past lunchtime and his English skills had taken a turn for the worse, which I attributed to the heat.

Vandan drove on what Greg and I have come to refer to as the pinball method: two points for connecting with a pedestrian, three for causing cardiac arrest in a bicyclist, four for endangering domesticated animals and five for passing a passing car on a hairpin turn. The only things spared were the cows, meandering mid-road with hallowed impunity.

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