Melanie Drury - freelance writer
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Bus-surfing in India

Bus-surfing in India
Travel Feature

Motoring Madness

Bus-roof rides are fun! As uncommon as it is in the cities these days in an attempt to make the roads 'safer', in rural India, surfing the roof of a moving bus is a preferred mode of transport!

Passengers are overflowing from the bus-windows, so I follow a bunch of people up the ladder at the back of the bus onto the roof. A roof-ride is definitely a life-risking experience as a sudden brake could have you flying, not to speak of the dangerously low, intricate entanglements of electric-wires crossing the roads, and tree-branches seemingly out for a game of cricket.

Have I mentioned that the driving is insane? I must insist! We overtake a jeep which is overtaking a cycle-rickshaw so that the on-coming traffic must veer off the road to save from being rammed! I am amused to spot three men on a bicycle, who stop on the road-side to let us pass. The bus is the king of the road. That is no question.

As we speed along we overtake several bicycles carrying heavy loads tied in massive bundles balancing precariously on the back. We pass a buffalo-cart carrying huge logs but I am most impressed by a flat-back cycle-cart carrying a large quantity of bricks, powered by a skinny, little fellow! Certainly it appears that there is a hidden quality of strength in these deceivingly small, thin people.

Suddenly the road is strewn with wheat for several metres. Smart idea! The traffic acts as a grinder to force the grains out! Further down the road several coconut husks are strewn in a similar manner. This one I cannot figure out. I ask the man beside me, struggling in my poor Bengali. Most locals cannot even speak Hindi, so I am surprised when in English he replies, “Mattress stuffing!”

I notice a blockade ahead – the road is barricaded by a large, wooden cart with ear-piercing Bollywood music blaring from it, and a few young men dancing frantically around it. A man with a 101-Dalmatians T-shirt (no inhibitions!) is leading the gang which is demanding baksheesh (bribe) from the vehicles in order to allow them through – but of course our bus-driver heeds no hint and drives on at the same speed, forcing them to panic and move out of the way! Phew!

At the end of this most unusual bus journey, I realise that there is no better way to see the sights in rural West Bengal, much like an open-air double-decker in London! Except you have to hold on for dear life.

I could easily linger on out here off the beaten track – it feels like time stands still in such places anyway – but I feel adventurous and head to Kolkata, the capital of the state, where the only traffic rule is to constantly hoot your horn!

Here the transport options are wide and fancy – from hand-pulled rickshaws for short distances to the efficient Metro linking the North and South of the city. For well-travelled journeys, the dare-devil shared motor-rickshaws always get there first, by overtaking four lines of traffic and expertly dodging the oncoming vehicles – excellent service provided your heart is strong, your lungs are powerful, and you have guts of steel. But I am quick to realise that for reaching the outskirts of the city, or simply the Eastern and Western areas, the options dwindle to using an Ambassador taxi or... a bus!

There are many different private bus companies while the state buses are as good as non-existent since they never stop to pick you up. The light green-grey buses must be the oldest as they are the most dilapidated, resembling squashed and rusty sardine-cans on wheels. The small, red buses and the large, light-blue buses both run frequently, while a real double-decker London bus is actually also rather common in some areas!

The main problem is... there are no bus-stops! You just kind of hang around a street corner and hail a bus the way you would hail a cab. I quickly figure that the reason why there are no bus-stops is because the bus does not stop, not unless there is a traffic-jam.

Hopping on and off a moving bus requires some skill. Thankfully the bus does seem to slow a little more for female passengers. Yaye! Men must simply run alongside the bus, grab a hold of the side-bar and tug themselves onto the steps, often travelling several kilometres hanging in such a manner due to a lack of space within the bus. To alight they jump off and run a few steps to deal with the momentum. I am impressed.

I manage to get onto a bus shared with some other eighty people. I promise it is not an exaggeration! Buses are organised in such a way as to allow more space for standing, while most seating is reserved for women. I begin to feel priviledged!

The conductor forces me inside and to the front of the bus and I stand legs apart for balance in this slightly more spacious female section, while the speeding vehicle rocks from side to side, swerving around cycle-rickshaws and trusting pedestrians. I am amused by the wrinkled expressions on some passengers' faces as they struggle to squeeze towards the exit, while I note that this really must be the best surf practice anybody could get.

However the best sportsman of all is definitely the conductor, identifiable by the wad of notes folded lengthwise held in one hand. Hanging outside the bus in wind-surfer fashion, he simultaneously bangs the side of the bus using some mysterious code to direct the driver away from the other moving objects while overtaking.

I wonder when bus-surfing will be acknowledged as an Olympic sport. I have no doubt who will be getting the gold medals.

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