Return to Ambala, Part I (draft)

[...first draft of part of the India story...]

Shaggy’s real name was Subeg, but that consisted of a few sounds that might emanate more easily from a Punjabi mouth than mine. Even his friends at home called him Shaggy. He was sixteen years old. And his dad just scared the rolling hell out of me on the bus from New Delhi. There's something about a guy with a knife and a turban shaking you awake that makes it easy to forget where you are.

That I even made it to that bus is an exercise in coincidence that I don’t understand. There I was, partway through my redemptive return to Ambala. I wasn’t scared of anything.

I had flown out of Calcutta that morning with no problems, though I expected plenty. I bought my tickets to New Delhi with help from Palash’s mom; she spoke the Bengali, I made the occasional head nod. To travel on January 12 there were two options. Air Sahara had an early morning flight with a condition—the ticket cost Rs. 4000 for Indian citizens, but Rs. 11000 for others. 11000 rupees is a little rich for me, equivalent to about US$250. Option two, Air Deccan, also had an early morning flight for Rs. 4000, but this flight was frequently cancelled because of the foggy weather conditions.

So these were my choices—the guaranteed flight that could kill my bank account or a flight that might not even happen. Those weren’t great odds, but I was confident—I was going to make this trip happen. I left Ambala as a wretch and I was going to return and be great. I bought the Indian citizen ticket on Air Sahara. When I arrived at the domestic terminal the next morning, two things could happen, either the people at the ticket counter would see that I had an Indian citizen ticket or they wouldn’t.

I received my ticket and went back to the security gate to say goodbye to Palash and to tell him that I was an honorary Indian citizen for the day. My confidence was rewarded and the first step to Ambala underway.

The taxi ride from the airport to the bus terminal was an unremarkable hour-long cross-town drive. The excitement of a taxi ride never starts until I emerge; at that time, the sight of a white guy with a backpack sets off a secret siren that calls the bus vendors to tout their services. It’s inevitable. It was easy to avoid some of them. With a move that would have made my old football coach proud I faked left then stepped right, causing the first one to charge left without me.

The second one was more cunning. “Over here, over here,” he exclaimed, pointing in a direction that was not the bus that I wanted to ride, so I gave him a naheeng and headed for the bus stand. It’s never appropriate to answer the calls of “Where are you going?” But this time, against all common sense, and without breaking stride or straight-ahead gaze, I replied dryly, “Ambala.”

“Oh, we have nonstop bus to Ambala. Come this way.” Per usual, “this way” was not in the direction of the buses that were in front of me. Something was different this time, there was an instinct that was called forward from the back of my mind. Something was pushing me to Ambala, and a subtle feeling compelled me to follow “this way.”

We walked briskly into the Inter-State Bus Terminal and then out the other side to his kiosk. Now I had a bad feeling. The bus terminal was my safety zone; everything outside of this was the jungle, the wild—crazy New Delhi and a rush that I couldn't understand.

Inside the kiosk, life is urgent. He must show me the bus, he must have me buy the ticket now for Rs. 280. Here's a funny principle. Rs. 280 is less than US$6 and Ambala is roughly 150km away. In the US, I probably couldn't walk 150km for $6. That, and when I rode the bus from New Delhi to Ambala on January 1 with Megha I paid only Rs. 100. So I told him no and left.

As I left he said, "The bus is ready to leave now." Before I even returned to my seat, I had my wallet out and a Rs. 500 bill ready to go.

I was going to Ambala. Now.

[...to be continued and edited...]

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