My knuckles are about eight shades whiter than my sunburned wrists. We spent three hours on horseback in the high-altitude sun of Ooty yesterday, but that is of no importance now. Now, we are careening down a steep slope of hairpin turns on a bus that seems to be driven by one of this country's many deities rather than the man at the wheel.
The ride began at about 2240 meters above sea level and we were unlucky to find seats in the rear of the bus. We knew the first portion of this journey would be a few hours winding through the same tea plantations and national forest that welcomed us here. As the bus engine groaned and clunked to life, we looked at each other and questioned what was coming.
The first hour of the journey passed as expected. A little concern arose when the bus braked and something moved and banged under my feet resting on the rear wheels. But my place next to the window allowed fresh, dusty, engine-stained air to flow freely and saved my motion sensitive stomach from catastrophe. The woman behind me wasn't so lucky, and she left her breakfast on the steps of the bus at the first rest stop.
A half hour passed and we came upon a stopped, broken bus and forty waving people. We pulled into the oncoming lane of a blind corner and waited for them to board - a precarious position, no doubt. But people move quickly here and we were off within minutes, standing, sitting and hanging on for dear life.
The bus cleared at the two-hour stop. We moved to the open front seat and were happy to further protect our bellies. With three hours to go, we did not know what road was ahead. This is where we turned to the West and the coast and everything new again.
Three hours passed the same as the first. Tea plantations tended to by brightly colored women sprawled across the steep slopes through which we traveled. Cows and dogs and goats and people littered the road, sadly decorated with plastic bottles, newspapers and melon rinds. Bustling mountain towns provided stops for coming and going and a changing population on our bus. The sun fell low and illuminated graying clouds the best it could. We wondered why there was no ocean in sight when darkness grew bold.
Now, our estimated time of arrival in Calicut has passed. The sky is black and moisture has begun to condense and fall from the sky. From our front seat vantage, the windshield quickly becomes spattered and I wonder how the bus driver can see the cows and dogs and goats and people that continue to litter the road. He stealthily weaves through them and chatters with the ticket collector and I wish for him to stop chattering and focus on driving.
The road curls steeply and sharply down the Western Ghats toward the ocean. In the bus, we are bigger than the turns and the black and white striped barriers come too close and too fast. I think the bus will not clear the barriers - I see where other vehicles have not - and as my hand grips the arm rest mightily, my body leaves the seat. I am ready to throw my weight to the uphill side of the bus so that we do not plummet over the edge and tumble thousands of feet to our end. As the dark and wet and danger begin to overtake my sensibility, the driver chatters happily with his mate and steers us through the maze that is an Indian road.
Dan and I love each other and say so now because it seems quite possible we won't have another chance. I think of family and dear friends and hope they are dry and safe and know I love them too. When I think I can't take any more, the road becomes wetter, the turns come more quickly and the driver decides to pass the government truck in front of us. I have just seen a 'No Passing' sign and wonder how he missed it! And, who in their right mind would even consider passing at a moment like this?! This man is cheerful and mad and steering us through impossibility all in a day's work.
I can't keep my eyes open and the end of this journey is now two hours overdue. I must have read the time wrong and my lids gratefully shut so that I don't have to witness the last forty-five minutes of madness. When this vessel finally releases us into the wet night air of Calicut, I feel relief, understated. My body feels tense and weak and ready to stand on solid ground, which is slightly cleaner here in the state of Kerala. We have two hours before the train and will feel full and ready to rest when it whisks us away into the night and toward the North.