“I will go to India to see the Taj Mahal,” I told my friends few months before I started traveling. Back then, the only place of interest I knew in the country was the great mausoleum. After I checked some Google suggested nearby attractions, I planned to fulfill my dream Indian tour in the golden triangle: Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. Since I had one whole month with nothing much in my itinerary, I looked forward to gate-crashing some weddings, learn basic yoga and master the steps of a popular dance in Bollywood.
A week before my flight, I learned that Pan Yu Sheng, my Taiwanese roommate in Kuala Lumpur was also traveling to India. So we compared our plans. I told him where I would be going, then he showed me the pictures of the Himalayas where he would spend most of his travel period.
I was so fascinated by the grandeur of the mountains. It seemed like an ethereal world. Suddenly I felt a connection to the place in the photographs like I had dwelt there in the past. It felt like a home where I could find the missing fragments of my soul. I junked my cultural immersion plan then told Pan, “I am going with you.”
We stayed in Majnu Ka Tilla, a Tibetan colony in the northern part of Delhi. There we met another Taiwanese guy who just came from a month long travel in Himachal Pradesh. He shared with us his memorable experience in the highland. He said, “India is indeed incredible, but at times terrible.” He advised us to prepare ourselves for the worst as we might be stuck in the middle of nowhere like he had when the bus he was riding on ran out of gas. The nearest gas station didn’t have petroleum either. He then handed us his trekking maps and his Chinese edition of the Lonely Planet. He also gave us some survival tips in case something bad would happen.
After we spent two days in the capital, we took a night bus to Dharamsala – a gateway to our Himalayan destinations.
The bus left Majnu Ka Tilla at 6:00 PM. The sun was still up but it was already dark due to the industrial clouds engulfing the ambient. I couldn’t wait to see the evergreens and breathe unpolluted air. Inside the bus, a baby was crying nonstop and my seat creaked while it jiggled. I couldn’t wait until the completion of that comfortless ride. Twelve hours seemed so unbearably long.
I really wanted to shut my eyes so I went to the rear to find a comfortable seat. But later I realized it was not wise because the road was at times bumpy and my butt became numb continuously being dribbled against the hard cushion. I moved to the seat near the middle, two rows in front of Pan. I reclined the back support and finally, I was able to doze off.
At around 2:00 AM, I woke up to the voice of the bus conductor. “Come, come!” Then he led me down the bus where a police officer was waiting. Still half asleep, I was confused. “What’s going on? Why am I the only one asked to alight?” The conductor opened the luggage compartment and the man in uniform motioned to let me identify my backpack. “Oh God, I’m in trouble!” I was so nervous that I could only think of unfortunate circumstance. “I am being scammed. They might have planted illegal goods in there to set me up. Shit, my visa! The police might have already tracked that I did not declare in my application I would be visiting this part of India. But wait, there was no restriction. I think these people are extremely racist. They are leaving me in this seemingly deserted area. What if I die here, will my body be shipped back to the Philippines? Oh no!”
There were only two backpacks in the compartment, the bigger one I believed was Pan’s. So I pointed to the other. “That’s your bag,” the officer growled. I stood firmly then nodded. He tilted his head and signaled me to go back inside. I sighed out the anxiety and I regained mental clarity. The conductor explained that the policeman was just checking if the backpacks indeed belonged to the tourists. I smiled at myself for being paranoid.
I went back to sleep. Few kilometers to the terminal, I dreamt of being reunited with nature. I wandered in woodland and the feeling of attachment was real. I opened my eyes then looked out the window. The bus was moving along pine trees. I felt I was coming home and my eyes became moist. “Thank you Lord for bringing me to this place,” I whispered.
Minutes later, smoke began to fill the bus. It smelled like a burnt plastic material. The driver pulled over. He went down with the bus conductor to inspect what was wrong. The distracted men left the door separating the passengers from the front part of the bus locked. I sensed danger so I grabbed Pan’s drawstring bag, woke him up then figured out how to escape.
The unbearable smolder caused passengers to be alarmed. The lady with her infant went to the door and started banging. One monk was coughing violently. More smoke and all of us were already panicky.
All the while, the driver and his assistant were trying to put off the flame themselves until they realized they couldn’t do it without the help of other people who were then locked inside the burning bus. At last, we were freed! A few minutes more and it would have been a disaster – I would have been – we would have been literally reunited with nature.
Once out, my instinct automatically acted on the survival tips our Taiwanese friend told us, one was to “always secure your important belongings.” Some of my important belongings were in my backpack. “I need to take it out now!” I strode to the back of the bus but someone grabbed me from behind. He said something I did not understand. The flame was spreading, it scared me that the gas tank would explode the next moment.
As instructed, Pan and I stayed at the side of the road with the monks who were saying prayers while the other local passengers fought with the fire. It drizzled all of a sudden and the flame dwindled. The men uncap all the bottles then poured the mineral water to the burning luggage compartment. The bus was saved.
The temperature dropped remarkably so we walked to the shed several meters away. Pan, whose shoulder at that moment was already covered with the maroon robe he borrowed from a monk, looked at me apologetically. Before he could say anything, I told him, “You know bro, I should be in Mumbai today dancing to my favorite Hindi song Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.” I grinned then continued, “but this trip has been one hell of an adventure.”