I love travel. Right up to the moment I hate it.

India leprosyThe guy behind the counter was smirking. “Why weren’t you here at 7:10?” he asked, taunted, and I wanted to punch right through the glass to smear away that smirk with the smashed pulp of his nose. After weeks in India, nonstop human pressure, careless pollution, an overpopulated land breeding itself into oblivion while the lepers moaned at me and there were too many to help, that smug bastard behind the counter became the focus of all my smoldering tension, frustration, and sadness. Rage in my blood.


It had all seemed so obvious. The travel agencies in Manali wanted 800 rupees for the overnight bus to Dharamshala. But I knew where the bus station was, why not get it myself and skip their commission? A different guy behind the counter confirmed “Night bus, Dharamshala? Volvo? 350 rupee. 7:10.”


India travel agent

Far too many possible captions coming to mind.

I was in the bus yard at 6:45. Low grade Indian chaos. Battered little Tata and Mahindra buses pulled their clouds of exhaust into the yard, miraculously hitting no one in the crowd before smooshing into parking spaces amid the shrilling of their whistling helpers. None of the hulking Volvos (a local man confided that the Swedish company did no more than license the name, “But better than the others!”) they give to the longer routes.


Most seemed to be settling in for the night, though now and then a caller would wander through the crowd with the same nonsensical style I’ve seen from Morocco to Ecuador to Vietnam where they smash the names together as fast and loud as possible. They don’t say “Dharamshala! Dharamshala!” they shout Dharamshalashalashalaramashalashaladharam!!!” and the streams of vowels and consonants lose all usefulness in the din.

India bus in Manali pushing a cow out of the way

Coming into Manali. It pushed that cow out of the way not altogether gently.


But none for Dharamshala. Finally, 7:09, a “Volvo” lumbered in and sat, in no hurry to go anywhere. I pestered the driver but he shook me off. “No no, this Chandigarh.” Would I have to change in Chandigarh?


I’ll spare you the play by play of confusion and uselessness, but two more Volvo buses appeared, neither seemed to be my bus. Around 7:40 one guy gave the answer I’d been fearing to hear when he saw my ticket. “This 7:10 bus, gone.”


India oil barrels

Discarded oil drums are a common sight in vehicular India. The ground nearby is always stained black.

Ticket windows in developing countries are always a marvel of bustling inactivity, and you wonder “How long can it take to sell a bus ticket? It would probably help if everyone stopped shouting.”


Behind the counter, smug in his power, my nemesis confirmed that my bus had left. “Why weren’t you here at 7:10?” His nose would smash like semi-cooked pumpkin and I would feel justice in the mess. “This was local bus. For Volvo sleeper, 785 rupee.”


Of course it took idiotically longer than that, but as I finally rolled onto the line of potholes with pavement around the edges that led to Dharamshala, I felt turgid rage, polluted as what ran in the gutters, thumping in my blood. No way the travel agencies were content with that small of a fee, this bastard had probably faked that my ticket was bad so he could scam me for 785 rupees. Why else had he demanded I give him my old ticket, smirking at me “You have to buy another, you lose that money.” I hated him. I hated India. I hated travel itself.


Looking back, I don’t think it was a scam. The other guy sold me a local bus ticket, but the local bus never appeared, perhaps leaving from outside the station or maybe they assumed no tourist would tolerate it? But the thing about travel is you don’t know. You have no idea what’s real, what’s scam, what’s your mistake and what’s theirs. You are as clueless and vulnerable as a child.


Indian alleyway

Delhi alleyway

That is the door for so much beauty. Because in that state you are open, raw, and connected. You don’t bustle anywhere with the closed efficiency of the informed. You ask. You’re there for every minute. And when it works, it feels like genius. And when someone helps you? Oh baby, they are a saint and the human species is the noblest and most wonderful thing in the universe.


And when you think you’re being scammed by some smug bastard you can’t reach? Well. There are lessons there too. Lessons I was too angry to heed in the moment, but I hope I’ve reached since.


Travel makes children of us all. No wonder we all want to go back to it.