India, Munnar – Last Stop

The bus tears into the village at high speed, blowing dust over and between the rows of mismatched thatch-roof houses. I check my watch; the bus is exactly on time. Back home, that really is not something worth mentioning. Here in this remote place, which name I can’t pronounce, or even read in the unfamiliar script in which it is written on the sign a little further down the road, public transport arriving on time is nothing short of miraculous. I’m glad the bus showed, I have an urge to move on. To leave this place and go to my next destination.

Brakes screeching, the bus shudders to a halt, the front door right beside me. The door swings open on rusty, creaking hinges. I get in. The door swings shut behind me and the bus is on its way again before I’ve even ascended the three steps to the aisle. The bus gains speed much quicker than expected for such an old bus. It looks like it has at least fifteen years on the road behind it.

I say a short greeting in the local language to the driver. He’s staring at the road intently and does not respond. The bus is almost empty. I move down the aisle and pick a seat in the row behind an elderly gentleman who sits bent forward, his head gently bobbing on the cadence of the bus. The bus hits several potholes and makes a left and right turn in quick succession while I’m trying to sit down. I manage to settle into my seat and gaze out of the open window.

The landscape still amazes me. A vast ocean of palm trees, starting at the edge of the lush green rice fields lining the road. Palm trees everywhere, as far as the eye can see. In the distance, palm trees blanket the rolling hills through which the bus will soon wind its way. In the lazy late-afternoon sun, the landscape is a brilliant green all around. Too stunning for any photograph to ever do it justice. Mesmerized, I continue staring out of the bus as the sun slowly makes its way across the sky, drifting toward the horizon.

 

A series of loud noises wakes me. It takes me a few seconds to remember where I am and to place the sounds; the bus door slamming shut, the engine revving, the tires squealing.

How long ago had I fallen asleep? The bus is obviously still on the move, and I don’t have to get off until the final stop, so no problem there.

I look around. There is not much to see. Night has come, I’ve missed out on seeing a beautiful sunset.

The world around the bus is dark, only the headlights and the dim light flooding out from inside of the bus illuminate the road. No moon or stars are in sight, the sky must have become clouded while I was asleep. With so little light, all I can make out is the outline of nearby trees.

The line of trees slopes down and away from the road on my side of the bus. We’ve entered the mountains. I feel the gradual incline of the road, leading us steadily upward, curve by curve. In the faint light, I can’t tell how far up we have gone so far, but since we are ascending, it can’t be more than a few hours to my destination.

I look around the bus. I count eight passengers, each sitting by his own, staring silently into the darkness ahead. Or sleeping. I cannot tell. The other passengers look out of focus in the dim, yellowish glow coming from the two small ceiling lights that are the only source of illumination inside the bus.

The sickly light makes the bus look different. The metallic grey paint, dulled by the years, takes on a dark, rust-like hue in places the light is having trouble reaching. It makes the bus look old. Very old, closer to fifty years than fifteen.

With only the bus to look at in the dark nighttime world, I start to notice other details. The remnants of amateurishly battered out dents are all over the bus. Right side, left side, the rear. Even on the ceiling a few can be spotted. The bus looks as if it used to take part in demolition derbies. How much chaos and destructing must this bus have seen, before starting its travels down dark, empty mountain roads.

The bus is making improbably good time on the winding mountain road. Tires hitting, on occasion drifting over, the edges of the asphalt, the bus gets the most out of every bend in the road. Seemingly heading for an unavoidable collision with the rocky mountain wall at every right turn and looking to plummet into the heavily forested valley with every left turn, the bus is masterfully guided onward.

It crosses my mind that I should be scared. My life is in the hands of the one controlling a bus tearing faster across a mountain road in the dark of night than a professional race driver would during the day. I feel completely calm though. The bus slides perfectly through each turn, indicating that it has been down this road many times before.

Several bends in the road later, lights appear up ahead. The bus tears into a small settlement and makes its first stop since I woke. The rear door opens. I turn my head, but I don’t see anybody getting on or off. The sound of the engine revving reverberates through the stationary bus, even the metal seems to shudder. The rear door swings inward. The bus shoots forward, quickly leaving the settlement and its lights behind.

The road keeps winding and winding. Not ten seconds go by without the bus turning into a bend in the road. Left. Right. Left. Left again. The swerve of the bus has become the only input on my senses. It’s hypnotic. Right. Left. Right again. With each bend in the road I feel more at peace, I’ve never been this calm.

The bus passes several pockets of lights without stopping. Or slowing. It seems to have gotten even darker outside the bus. Only the trees right beside the road are recognizable. The rest of the landscape is night, just a blur of pitch black shapes. So little light in this world of darkness. Darkness. Point of light. Left turn. Darkness. Left again. Darkness again. It’s so peaceful.

It occurs to me that I haven’t seen a single headlight from oncoming traffic, the bus has been alone on the road since I woke up. When? Hours ago? How long since the bus stopped? Five minutes, half an hour, three hours?  Has the bus even stopped? Or stopped again?

It must have, since I now count ten fellow passengers. Two more, staring into the darkness ahead or sleeping. I must have dozed off again and slept through one or more stops. My eyes are so heavy. The smooth swerve of the bus is making me feel like a baby in his mother’s arm, gently being rocked to sleep. And back towards sleep I go.

 

A chill, colder than any cold I’ve ever felt before, runs up my spine. My eyes shoot open, I’m wide awake. Mustn’t sleep. If I sleep, I shall never wake again. I’m sure of it.

The faith I had in the one controlling the bus has disappeared. What seemed like exceptional skill before, now feels like riding on a suicidal rollercoaster. My heart’s racing. My palms are slick with sweat. I need to get off the bus. But I’m not on a bus anymore. We’re moving too fast to be on a bus; the landscape is shooting by in a blur. I’m flying, in a rusty metallic grey box, over an ocean of black serrated trees. Flying higher and faster with every turn. Why are we turning? Why left? Why right? Why left again? Huge glowing balls of light appear in the distance. Fiery eyes of an ancient flying demon, coming straight for us. The eyes, they are coming for us.

The bus comes to a screeching halt in the middle of a tiny settlement lit only by two Victorian style streetlights. No light comes from within the homes.

The rear door swings open.

I shake my head in a physical effort to clear my mind. What has gotten into me? What kind of weird dream was that? It feels so vague, as if remembering a long-ago seen movie.

The sound of two doors closing accompanies our departure from the settlement. The bus continues on its way down the dark, empty road. The winding road, twisting through the terrain, like a thin never-ending serpent it slithers up and down the side of the mountains, following the only path that will allow it passage. Colossal unyielding rock on one side, cool unresisting mountain air on the other, the bus hurtles down the asphalt sanctuary in the in-between. Traveling ever further along the road, ever closer to its destination.

The last stop.

Isn’t that where I wanted to go? Why did I get on this bus? When? Where? It doesn’t matter, I had to get on this bus, I’m sure of it. Me and the other passengers, none of which have gotten off. Why would they, this is our bus – our only ride. One more passenger has gotten on at the previous stop, I see we are now twelve. I must have missed her getting on, she probably came in through the front door. The light on the bus is so faint now, I can’t even see the door near the driver, or the driver himself. In the dying light, whole patches of interior have gone from looking rust-colored to full black. The light from inside the bus no longer spills into the outside world.

A forest of shadowy shapes streaks past the bus. A huge mass of strange elongated sticklike beings spouting deformed, jagged limbs is lined up haphazardly on the slope. They’re everywhere; beside the bus, reaching for the bus, touching the bus. Serrated limbs reach out to pull me toward mouths with huge serrated teeth.

I scream, but no sound escapes my throat. I back away from the open window, trying to stand up. My right foot catches in one of the straps of my backpack. I lose my balance and tumble into the aisle.

A forest of trees, shadowy shapes in the dark moonless night, streaks past the bus.

Covered in sweat, heart pounding harder than ever, I sit down again. I try to take back control of my breathing. Long inhale, long exhale. I can’t seem to calm down. The dark is playing tricks on me. I have to get a hold of myself. I close my eyes and focus on my breathing.

Tires squealing. Brakes shrieking. A door swings open. The engine revs.

The engine sounds like a living thing, rattling the bus with every rev to show its displeasure at having to stop. The power pulsating outward from the barely contained engine vibrates through the bus. I feel it through my hands, holding on to the seat in front of me. I feel it through my feet, coming up from the metal floor. I feel it pulsing up my leg and slither into the base of my spine. The pulse travels upward, one vertebra at a time. Achingly slow, savoring the moment when it will reach my skull, where it will splinter apart my soul.

A door slams shut. Tires squeal. The engine is let loose from its constraints.

The vibrations cease but for a faint pulse, slowly receding down my spine.

My heart is pounding inside my skull, the beats drowning out all thoughts. My breathing is shallow, chaotic. Can’t get enough air. I feel faint, nauseous. My head has sagged, relying on my arms to support its weight. I’m staring down toward the floor but see nothing but darkness. Why is it so dark? I look up. I see nothing. The world is pitch black. No light inside the bus, no light at the front and rear of the bus, where head- and taillights should be illuminating a patch of road. The bus is swerving across the asphalt serpent at full speed in total darkness.

This is wrong, I should not be here. But shouldn’t I go to the last stop? No, not on this bus. I must get off this bus.

I reach around the dark space around me, looking for my backpack. My hand touches my pack and grasps it, like a drowning man grasps a piece of driftwood. I fumble with the pack for what seems forever – to find the front pocket, inside the front pocket to find my flashlight.

I find it.

A beam of brilliant white light shoots out from the small torch, hurting my eyes. It’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I slide myself off the seat and into the aisle. It’s difficult to remain standing. I feel weak, dizzy, and nauseous. My legs want to give out. I take a step and grab hold of the next seat. I almost fall as my hand, covered in sweat, slips at the exact moment that the road swerves left. Painstakingly, one small step at a time, I make my way forward. My hands keep slipping and I have to stop myself from falling several times as the bus slides along the curves in the road. Row by row I move toward the front of the bus and finally get close enough to see the driver.

The thin beam of light emanating from the torch in my left hand passes through empty air above the driver’s seat.

I blink.

I blink again.

I wipe the sweat from my eyes and blink again.

No one is driving the bus. There is no driver, no one is driving the bus. The steering wheel turns left, returns to center, and turns left again. No one is turning the steering wheel. The steering wheel is turning.

I am unable to blink.

The bus turns right. Sharply. I lose my balance and tumble down the steps leading to the front door. I hit the door with my shoulder and it stops me from falling completely to the floor. The flashlights lands on the bottom step. I hesitate to pick it up. I don’t want to see any more.

Wait! The other passengers. I am not alone on the bus. I pick up the flashlight and shine my tiny beam of light, the last light in the world, around to locate my fellow passengers. The flashlight brings a face into view. A face covered in blood, staring at the darkness ahead with unblinking eyes. An insubstantial face, the beam of light passes through. Another face, left side caved in. Another face, old, peaceful.

My fear turns to despair turns to acceptance within moments as a memory, vague and elusive, of my last day in the village surfaces.

My last memory.

I move the flashlight toward the window, to catch a glimpse of my own reflection. I know what I will see. I know where the last stop of the bus will be.

 

 

 

My own story of Munnar

During my first trip around India I mostly moved around by bus. I had waited two nights in a row in a small village whose name I do not remember for a midnight bus that did not show. I was trying to get to Munnar, a hill station in the Kerala state in Southern India. The next day I decided to go the even longer way around toward my destination. The trip took the whole day, as most trips in India do.

Long after sunset, the old bus I was on reached the base of the hill and started its ascent toward Munnar. The treacherous elevation did not slow the driver down at all. The bus flew over the winding road. There was no light to be seen in the world outside the bus. All was darkness.

Nobody is really afraid of the dark, it’s what their imagination tells them might be hidden by the dark. My imagination stayed within the bus, but that bus traveled far away from the world of the living.

I made it to the last stop of this particular bus without incident. In the morning, light replaced the darkness, and I could enjoy the views out over the magnificent hills covered with tea plantations.