Ten hours later I was sipping chai on a cold dark train platform waiting for the train to Jabalpur – the closest train station to Kanha National Park. The train arrived three hours late and to a different platform. Thankfully, I have already embraced a ‘traveling Buddhist attitude’ and spent the time reading a book rather than stressing out. I was marveling at my own calm.
Another eight hours later I was in Jabalpur, reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World at the bus station. By the time the bus heading for Kanha was 1 hour late, I decided to ask the conductor when it was actually expected. He told me a fairly involved story about the bus driver getting in some trouble with the police and assured me that the incident was almost resolved and the bus would be arriving shortly. Another hour later I went to see him again, and this time it turned out that the entire bus with all its passengers and the driver were being held at the police station. I held on to my zen attitude and continued reading the book. The book was interesting, the sun was nice and warm on my face, and all things considered, I was having a much better time just sitting there than I would have working at some tedious desk job back home. My zen, however, was suddenly interrupted when the conductor ran up to me and started shouting something, waving his arms and pointing towards a crowded bus that was already leaving.
“Mandla… Mandla”, he kept shouting and motioning for me to get up and run towards the bus.
“I am not going to Mandla, I am going to Kanha”, I tried to explain. But he decided not to waste any more time arguing, picked up my bags, and ran for the bus. I had no choice but to follow him.
“No bus to Kanha, go Mandla take bus to Kanha”, he was saying while stuffing my bags inside the already full bus.
“Are you sure there is a bus to Kanha from Ma… Mandla?”
“Yes, go Mandla, take bus to Kanha”, he practically shoved me inside as the bus drove off.
I looked around the bus and it seemed as though there were twice as many people as the bus was designed to take. An older lady in a bright gold and green sari shifted in her sit to make room for me. I smiled at her in appreciation but could see no way of how I could squeeze into the tiny opening she offered me. At this moment the bus swung violently around a corner and I was thrown and firmly deposited between the nice lady and a skinny man sleeping by the window. It was such a tight fit that I could not move a single muscle.
I realized that I was still clutching a small tourist map in my hand and decided to see where exactly Mandla was. I found no relief in the map as it did not show any town called Mandla in the entire state of Madhya Pradesh.
Deafened by the maddening blasts of the horn and chocking on the exhaust fumes blowing into the bus through the big hole behind the driver’s sit, I tried to push myself into the sit as hard as I could to stop myself from bouncing on its hard wooden surface as the bus drove over countless pot holes in the road. The music came on through some cheap speakers that could only produce very high, head splitting frequencies; the man sleeping next to the window was now sleeping on my shoulder smelling of curry and garlic, and a rather suspicious character made himself a bed on my backpack. In comparison to this ride, the ride from Bhopal to Bimbetka caves seemed like pure luxury. Hour after agonizing hour of torture has passed, but there was no relief from this death trap. Mandla had to be the furthest place from Jabalpur on the entire Indian continent.
As the sun dropped below the hills we finally arrived at Mandla. Wherever it was, it was certainly in the middle of nowhere. As I looked around I couldn’t help but gape in wonder at the architectural masterpieces surrounding me, trying to perceive the mind that designed them. The houses lining the main road of town had not four but only three walls to them. The side facing the road was open, exposing the interior. They looked like doll houses, but dirty and ugly.
When I inquired about a bus to Kanha I was assured that there was none. Not today at any rate. By this point I was unable to experience any emotions or make any decisions, so I just sat down on one of the benches at the bus stop and went to read my book. My one faint hope was in the fact that I obviously stood out from the crowd, as if I had it written across my forehead in capital letters: FOREIGNER. So if there happened to be a bus to Kanha at some later point they would not forget to tell me. By the time the wave of apathy I was feeling has finally lifted and I looked around it was already dark. People were staring at me: a single white female sitting here on our bus stop and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. A young man came up:
“You want to go to Kanha?”, he asked
“There is no bus today”
“I know. Is there one tomorrow?”
“ Maybe. I am the bus driver. I go to Kanha. I am on holiday now.”
“When do you come back to work?”
“ In one week. If more people come, maybe the bus will go tonight. Now it is only you.”
Miraculously, in the end the bus did come. And I was the only passenger. We drove for ages. The moon was huge and low in the sky as we drove through the forest. There were no lights of human habitation, no light at all, just the moon. The front door of the bus did not shut and the wind was blowing in in powerfull gusts. I was wearing everything I could pull out of my bag and I still wasn’t warm. But I was on a bus!
And then we suddenly stopped. I felt a pang of worry. I was absolutely and totally mentally exhausted. I have lost the line between simply odd and not real at all. It seemed like I was living in the world, where my previous knowledge of life did not apply. Anything could be real at the same time as everything could be not so real. Yet some instincts from the old, familiar life still remained and I felt a little bit uneasy about being alone on the bus with two strange men, driving with them through the wilderness at night, and I definitely felt uneasy about suddenly stopping without any apparent reason.
The reason, however, was only not apparent because it did not reach my eye level. A group of teeny- tiny men and young boys dressed in worn-out clothes and wrapped in blankets climbed onto the bus. They were carrying heavy sacks that were attached to the opposite ends of long bamboo poles that they had slung across their shoulders. They looked so much like little hobbits. And they had some hobbit-like simplicity about them as well. It was obvious they did not expect to come across a bus at such late hour and were planning on making their journey on foot. Buzzing with excitement they reached into their sacks for small bundles of money and paid for the tickets. They rode with me for some time and then got off somewhere that looked to be in the middle of the forest. It amazed me how different we were, how unlike our lives were. We were the same species but we were literally worlds apart.
At long last we arrived at Katya village on the outskirts of Kanha Reserve. I was so grateful to these two people that ran the bus for over 3 hours in the middle of the night just for me, that I offered them some extra money. My 30 rupee bus fare wouldn’t even cover a fraction of the petrol they would have used for the return journey. But the conductor politely refused.
“You are a guest in my country”, he said, “I take care of you”.
A jeep from Van Vihar guest house was already waiting for me at the bus stop. The conductor spoke briefly to the driver and passed my bags to him. Wishing him good luck and thanking him again I got off the bus and climbed into the jeep.
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