If you’re ever in India and need to travel by bus and think that you’re really smart and can book your bus tickets online, thereby foregoing the travel agent fees, then I’ve only one thing to tell you: get ready for an adventure! Jessie and I are pretty competent travelers and we usually opt to figure out transport on our own. However, after getting burned twice with online bookings, we decided it was worth the extra fees to book bus travel through travel agents. (And honestly, the fees were only like a dollar extra anyway.)
We weren’t planning to take buses in the first place, though. Three days after we’d arrived in Delhi we realized that there was no way we were going to get a seat on the train up to Rishikesh at such short notice. It’s not like Thailand, where you can walk into the station an hour before your train and get a seat or sleeper berth. So we found this website called ‘Make My Trip’ (I’ve not included a hyperlink here because India’s chaotic and unpredictable bus system has no business trying to sell orderly, scheduled tickets online), and booked an overnight sleeper bus.
The stated departure time was 8:45pm, but the ticket warned that we should arrive at least 15 minutes before just in case the bus arrived early. Looking back now after almost 6 weeks of travel in India, I’m laughing hysterically at this notion! Early? Who are you kidding?!
Of course, to be extra sure we made the bus we arrived super early. At 8:00 we found the pickup point at Ram Krishna Ashram Marg Metro Station Gate 2. That’s a mouthful, huh?! The gate was at the end of a wide lane with no exit that was choked full of parked auto rickshaws and street food stalls. We wondered how a giant sleeper bus would be able to come down the lane and reverse its way back out, but hey it’s India and we’d already seen about a thousand miraculously near calls and eekings by within the ten minutes it took for us to walk from our hotel to here, so why not?
It was very dark and so many people were coming and going through the metro gate. We waited patiently until 8:45. When no bus came I found the text message with our e-ticket and called up the service number. The operator only spoke Hindi, so our conversation consisted of me saying “Hello! English please!” and the operator saying “Yes, hello?” and then speaking something I couldn’t understand.
Talking on the phone in India is always difficult because Indians answer their phones by saying “Hello?” And when you say “Hello!” back they automatically assume you’re Indian and so they speak rapidly in Hindi to you. Sometimes it takes a considerable amount of time just to get them to realize you are speaking English!
The operator hung up on me and my mood turned from apprehensive to flabbergasted. At this point some of the people around us must have seen the exasperated looks I was giving as Jessie and I talked about our options. A well groomed young man stepped up and asked in almost crystal clear English if he could help us. I shoved my phone at him and asked him to talk with the operator. The operator gave him the bus driver’s cell phone number. He called the bus driver. The bus driver said he was running 30 minutes late but that he couldn’t pick us up at gate 2. We had to meet him at gate 16. Great! We asked around to some of the shop owners where we could find gate 16. They looked at us as if we were crazy and told us there were only 5 gates for this station.
Our new friend got back on the phone to the driver and figured out that we weren’t supposed to meet him at gate 16, but pillar 16. You see, outside the Ram Krishna Ashram there’s a four-way intersection. Over the intersection there’s a highway, which is supported by pillars. Each pillar has a large black number on it. And one of those pillars presumably had a giant number 16 painted on it. So he led us away from the metro station down some back alleys where garbage was piled high along the road and rats chased each other in plain sight. Our hearts were racing as we side-stepped huge cow patties and murky puddles from the day’s rain. Jessie and I both felt super uncomfortable, but what else could we do? We held our bags tightly to ourselves and slid out onto a slightly busier road. We found pillar 16 under the highway in a dark, sketchy looking area with hardly any traffic. Our friend told us to wait there and the bus would be coming down the street to get us in 20 minutes. Then he left us.
A pig at a bacon factory couldn’t feel more conspicuous. (That’s right, I made that one up all on my own!)
“This can’t be safe. This is stupid, right? Is this stupid? Yeah, this is stupid. How much longer should we wait?”
Half an hour passed. No bus. We were hot and tired from standing for 1 1/2 hours now with all our luggage hanging from our bodies. But the only other option we could see was checking back into our hotel and going through this again tomorrow. That also seemed like a terrible idea. A man with a red turban and a comedically high-pitched voice walked up and asked us what we were doing standing there. As we explained our situation to him, more men gathered around us until we were completely surrounded. Instinctively my hands curled up into fists at my side, even though my head told me that it was going to be alright. Jessie and I exchanged a look and a little nervous laughter. The man asked to see our bus ticket. We had no paper ticket, just the one on our phone, so I tentatively handed it over to him. He immediately called up the operator. As he joked around with the bus driver the other curious guys around us were leaning in over our shoulders and trying to find out, all at the same time, what was happening. It transpired that they were taxi drivers and that the lot behind us was a parking lot that they parked in overnight while waiting for call outs. We were so relieved, and ironically enough, now felt safer knowing that this endearing mob of drivers understood our dilemma and had our backs.
“Ten minutes.” He handed the phone back to me and said the bus was delayed in a traffic jam.
Around 9:30pm two French women walked up and asked if this was where they could catch the bus to Rishikesh. “Yes!” we almost screamed, relieved that other foreigners had been directed to this unmarked location as well. How they knew to show up in this place 45 minutes after the scheduled departure time baffled me. But just then, before I could ask, I received a phone call from someone who could speak English and who’d been instructed to notify me that the bus would be arriving in about another 10 minutes. It seems that no matter how often you call, the bus is always ‘just 10 minutes away.’ So we all waited: two sweat-drenched exhausted Americans, two lovely old French ladies, and a mob of giggling Indian taxi drivers.
The bus never came. Instead, they sent a minivan to pick us up and drive us an hour outside the city to a less crowded bus station. We got on our bus around 11:15pm. It had no sleeper units. But, it did have air conditioning (which ended up dripping from the ceiling and raining on Jessie all night long until we had to put up an umbrella over her…picture that!). The driver seemed nowhere near ready to leave. Thirty-six expectant faces stared at him, silently pleading with him to get going. But he still had five open seats to fill, and by gosh he was going to fill them. He kept darting outside the door, dragging people up into the bus, and having some kind of altercation with them, which usually resulted in the people exiting the bus. But eventually at 12:15am, four hours after the time we were asked to be ‘promptly’ waiting for our bus, there was a pair of cheeks in every seat and the bus roared to life. As the driver made our way to Rishikesh, honking at anything that moved and swerving every two seconds in pointless attempts to avoid all the unavoidable potholes, I just had to smile.
In the chaos and absurdity of it all, I had the first thought flicker somewhere in the back of my mind that maybe I could fall in love with this country. It’s unexplainable, I know. But that’s what I thought just then.
Since that ridiculous first bus journey, we’ve had three more bus rides. Only one of them was another complete fiasco. The other two departed reasonably according to schedule (about a half hour late), and only one of them took five hours to complete a 3-hour trip because the driver insisted on stopping for half hour breaks at three separate roadside stalls. The rest of our trip has been, and will be, by train (cue sounds of rejoicing!).
The lesson we learned about transit in India is this: if you’re booking buses make sure to buy a Costco-sized bottle of extra strength tums…you’re gonna need them. Alternatively, we’ve had great success booking train trips online.* The booking website for train travel is www.cleartrip.com. You should book your whole trip well in advance and all at once. Then the only hassle you’ll have is needing to change platforms at the station when the announcer calls out that your train has been switched from track 2 to track 5, and then once you get over to track 5, back to track 2.
* An unfortunate quirk about booking train or bus travel online is that it’s next to impossible to do until you’ve entered the country and obtained a registered Indian mobile number. You must have this in order to proceed to the payment page of the websites. I’ve read that you can work around this through emailing the company with a copy of your passport information page, but it sounds like not many have had success with this method.