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“Why the hell had Barbara booked bus tickets with the State Bus Company, rather than the private one?” I thought as I looked up at the sinister plain clothed police officer that was demanding to search my luggage. When she came back with the tickets the previous night I was unduly irritated by her innocent mistake.

I don’t travel well at the best of times and buses cause me a great deal of anxiety, largely due to worry of being stuck onboard developing food poisoning or “The Green Apple Splatters”. So it is unsurprising that I took a keen interest in finding the best bus for the grueling 16-hour return to Delhi.

Himachel Tourism was by all accounts the best. We had seen their bus on the way up to Manali and it had looked impressive – modern, clean with proper seats. Our ski instructor had independently recommended them too. Disregarding this and fellow travellers horrific tales of overnight public interstate buses, Barbara decided that we should travel with Himachel Roadways.

“Tourism, Roadways - an innocent mistake” I hear you and her say, and at first I would have agreed, that yes it was an innocent, if unfortunate, mistake. Uncharacteristically it stayed with me through the night, poisoning my thoughts. I became suspicious that Barbara was willing to trust the guidebook more than our own experiences and personal recommendations. This was of course just paranoia playing its all-important role.

Even though we were assured that Himachel Buses were of reasonably high quality, I had an impending sense of doom. I was trying, and failing, to put a brave face on it as we approached the coach. Shabby as it was beside the Himachel Tourism bus, it didn’t look that bad from a distance.

“It even has head rest covers” reassured Barbara. We loaded our bags into the back, paying the 10-rupee tip/bribe to ensure they didn’t disappear during the journey. We boarded the bus and I immediately knew we were in trouble. The headrest covers were undergraduate bed sheet grey, the type of grey that might come out in a really hot wash, but then again maybe not. The head rest itself was an immovable boomerang positioned just below my shoulder blades, it was as if the seat had been designed for people 6 inches shorter then me. I looked over and saw that Barbara’s head was comfortably supported and then the penny dropped – it had been designed for people 6 inches shorter than me.

An hour after setting off we arrived at our first stop, to board more passengers. As is normal in India a range of different hawkers came on board hoping to sell single satumas for a rupee. I wondered at the system and poverty that must exist that made it economic for a man to sell 30 or 40 pieces of fruit over his entire working day.

As we continued on our journey I resigned myself to the uncomfortable and doubtless sleepless night to follow. Suddenly the bus pulled over to the curb, a uniformed and a plain-clothed police officer boarded, and immediately singled us out.

“Bags, bags – open” they demanded. Immediately adrenalin coursed through my veins as I stumbled to cooperate. They had had taken just one quick look at the entire bus and come directly to us. All I could think of was the story of the 21-year-old Israeli woman nursing her newborn child as she started her 10-year sentence for possession of 3kg of hash. Now truly paranoid I expected them to pull out large resinous blocks that had “slipped” into my daypack.

Needless to say (they don’t allow Internet access in Indian prison), they found nothing and as I calmed down it all started to make sense. We were the only foreigners on the bus and the random check was almost certainly a measure to reassure nationals that the government was taking all possible steps to prevent “Pakistani terrorism”. It is not pleasant to be picked out of a crowd and searched, purely on the basis of colour. It has given me some insight into what it is like to be a person of colour passing through Irish immigration.

No sooner had the officers had left and the bus continued on its way, than the Indian seated beside me sparked up a joint. After he finished his first joint he offered me one. “No thanks, I don’t smoke” I refused. He tried to push a lump the size of a Euro coin into my palm signalling that I should eat it. That’s just what I needed, my own personal paranoia amplified by a drug-induced haze, no thanks. I closed my eyes trying to shut out the bus, the journey, the pungent smell of coconut oil from the man in front of me and the two bloody great lumps of headrest pushing into my back.


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