Amanda Jones
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Tip Top, Number One Taxi Ride to Simla

Written by Amanda Jones for The Los Angeles Times

I can't hope to compete with hard-core journalists when it comes to tales of front lines, terrorists, drug lords, pestilence, natural disasters, marauding beasts and psychopathic guides. My stories are feeble by comparison. I've only ever imperiled myself through blind gullibility, outright stupidity or the overconsumption of alcohol -- whether it was me or someone else doing the imbibing.

My most protracted flirtation with death took place in northern India, when my husband, Greg, and I were young and experiencing the developing world for the first time. Our destination on that brazier- hot day was Simla, a cool, forested Himalayan town once favored by the British Raj.

I don't recall how we got to Chandigarh. By that point, India had become an eternal journey on trains, planes, camels, bikes, rickshaws and elephants. I do, however, clearly remember the Chandigarh bus station. It appeared that half of India had converged on this particular place, resulting in a scene of flawless anarchy. No ticket booth was in evidence, but 30 decrepit, filth-streaked buses that were parked and driverless were crammed with passive- faced locals and topped with a motley array of luggage.

Greg swung into action, boarding each bus to inquire about its destination. I watched as Indian men swarmed to offer advice, swaying their heads back and forth in that indigenous subcontinental fashion.

"I think I found the bus," Greg said. "But I can't figure out if it's leaving in 10 minutes or 10 hours. It seems Simla is somewhere between three and five hours away."

It was only 9 in the morning, and already I sensed the rising dread that is the traveler's enemy. It foreshadows spiritual decline and a temporary obsession with the glories of home.

Boarding, I made the mistake of glancing down the bus. The streaks I had noticed from afar were rivers of encrusted vomit, and no window lacked one. Inside, the smell defied precise identification, except to conjure a fusion of putrefied meat, patchouli and body odor.

The only empty seats were on a hard, cracked-leather bench, pierced by a rusted spring. My humor returned fleetingly when Greg tried to sit down. At 6 feet 4 inches, he is a behemoth by Indian standards. His knees drove into the forward seat, forcing him to sit with his legs spread wide, leaving me only a few inches in which to stow my own limbs.

"Pardon me," I said to a trustworthy-looking mother. "How long is the ride to Simla?"

"Maybe six hours," she answered with a smile. "But not so great a time if no accident."


I opened the Australian guidebook we'd neglected to read and saw that it called this particular transport the "chunder bus." (In Aussie slang, "chunder" means vomit.) These buses, it continued, traveled on one of India's most perilous roads, claiming hundreds of lives every year as they hurtled off sheer cliffs to rocky, irretrievable ends. Silently, I passed the book to Greg. He read, unfurled his legs, stood and announced, "We're taking a taxi."

There were no taxis. Once again Greg stalked off to investigate, returning with a scrawny man with bare feet and a razor-thin Errol Flynn mustache. He was radiant with shiftiness.

"Stay here," he said. "I find you taxi driver. Oh my, Simla looong way and only No. 1 brave man make drive."

Again we waited, the time marked by three buses that crept off in a foul cloud of unfiltered diesel. Finally we were led to a car, introduced to Vandan, its mannered driver, and told to get in and wait while he set things up. With relief we collapsed into the antiquated Indian-made car.

"How far to Simla?" I asked.

"Ah, three hours most. I get you there lickity-split quick. I am No. 1 best driver," he said. Greg and I settled in for a pleasant private ride.

Then something happened which, to anyone in her right mind, would have been a sign to get out of the car and run. A man stuck his head in the window and introduced himself. J.P. Kapoor had the air of an anxious do-gooder.

"I see you are the passengers of Vandan," J.P. Kapoor ventured. "I am his social worker. If there are any problems, any problems at all, just call this number. Remember that. OK?"

And he handed me a piece of paper printed with "Chandigarh Department of Social Services and Restoration," and his name and telephone number.

I don't recall my reaction. Maybe I thought the man was ensuring that the quality of taxi rides to Simla met international standards. Neither Greg nor I thought to ask what sort of problems he might be referring to.

An oddly thirsty driver

By the time Vandan returned, it was well past lunchtime and his English skills had taken a turn for the worse, which I attributed to the heat.

Vandan drove on what Greg and I have come to refer to as the pinball method: two points for connecting with a pedestrian, three for causing cardiac arrest in a bicyclist, four for endangering domesticated animals and five for passing a passing car on a hairpin turn. The only things spared were the cows, meandering mid-road with hallowed impunity.

In spite of all, my magnanimity endured. Anything was better than the chunder bus. Besides, the Himalayan foothills were approaching; they were sure to slow Vandan down.

By the third hour, the hills were still distant mounds and Vandan had stopped for chai, spiced Indian tea, three times. Thirsty man, we thought, as he disappeared into a roadside shack flung together from corrugated tin.

By the fourth cup his mood had darkened, and he drove with a savagery reserved for Hong Kong action flicks. His face was twisted into a bruised knot, he muttered in Hindi, and he no longer spoke nor understood English. I sat rigid, waiting for the "thadump" that would signal his first casualty.

Rounding one precarious corner, Vandan began gesticulating maniacally, pointing out the charred and crumpled remains of two buses, three trucks and several cars 500 feet below. He seemed to find the sight deeply satisfying and continued to identify wrecks as the road grew narrower.

"Excuse me, Vandan," Greg said. "Would you please slow down? And are we almost there? We've been driving for nearly four hours."

Vandan whirled around, shrieking in Hindi, spittle flying. He beat the steering wheel with both hands and veered off the road, stopping outside yet another chai hut. This time he left the car running while we sat stupefied and stupidly embarrassed by our predicament.

"You know," said Greg, my postgraduate- degreed mate, "I think our Vandan is a psychopathic drunk. This 'chai' he's drinking is actually more like rocket fuel."

Well, duh. J.P. Kapoor sprang to mind. I fondled the piece of paper and looked for a phone.

"Amanda," Greg said. "Look where you are. Do you expect there to be phones up here? That piece of paper is a sick joke."

He was right, of course. Had I been older, had I been as inured as I am now, I would have assumed the wheel and left our alcoholic taxi driver to stagger off a cliff. When he returned, we remained very, very still and very, very silent, staring out at the darkening sky.

I fell into a despondent torpor, certain that life was a 50-50 deal. Vandan sped dangerously at times and proceeded at a crawl at others, occasionally brushing the lip of the cliff.

At the next chai stop, I remembered I had Valium in my luggage. If I were to die, I reasoned, I might as well go out stoned. Greg took the moral high ground, saying he preferred to remain alert. "Good for you," I said, downing two pills.

Slumped in a corner, I lived my death several times on that journey. Greg sat stoically holding my hand.

At 2 a.m., 11 hours after leaving Chandigarh, the car crawled into Simla. Vandan was rotten drunk. Greg shouted at him to stop, telling me to stay put while he looked for a hotel. We should have swapped roles, but I was too drugged to move. As soon as Greg disappeared, Vandan turned to me, leering through bloodshot eyes, pointing at my chest and then himself. Then, to my horror, he faced the wheel and the car lurched off up the hill.

At that point some overdue reaction punched through my brain, rousing me. With a samurai cry, I launched myself at the loathsome Vandan, pummeling his head with my fists, then with the guidebook. He grabbed for me, failed, stopped the car, opened the door, tried to stand up and instead slumped to the ground.

I leaped from the car just as Greg appeared, panting and furious. He threw some money on the comatose body, and we proceeded on foot. Stumbling through the sleeping town, we rounded a corner and faced the final defeat -- the chunder bus, parked and empty, which had obviously arrived long before.