One delayed flight later, we land in Delhi, at sunset. As night creeps in, the 43 degree heat keeps its choke-hold on the city; unabated, unapologetically, inhumanely hot.
Optimistically, with not much of a plan, no map, and some fast and loose internet research done at the airport, we head for the tube station. Our plan of action: Take tube to bus station, buy overnight bus ticket to Manali, get on bus, celebrate, and chill as we head for snowy mountains and fields of green.
Being the only two white people at the underground, toting massive backpacks, and looking lost, we’re soon approached by a small, smiling Indian man. Having read about the amount of scamming that goes on in Delhi, I eye him with suspicion. Nevertheless, we let him guide us through the station, and try to answer the standard set of questions about where we’re from, where we’re going, and where we’re staying, and nondescriptly as possible. But the small Indian man deposits us at the right platform, and blends back into the crowd with a smile and a head-waggle.
The tube pulls up. It’s full. Very very full. We shove our way aboard, and once crammed in, we realise there’s not a single other woman in the carriage. It’s also quiet enough to hear a pin drop, even on the moving train, and every single man on the coach is staring at us with blank expressions.
Thankfully, one stop later we’re freed from the throng and convinced that we’re just a short walk from the station, so we trudge down night-time Delhi city streets, 43 degrees going strong. Of course, there’s on bus station. Shit. A Lebanese man beacons us into his ‘tourist information centre’ (I’d also read about the fake ones…) and informs us we need to go to the main bus terminal, located 15km away at Kashmiri gate. “You didn’t book a ticket? Oh….” Best to go there and try your luck, he says, as his system shows no sleeper busses available for tonight anymore. It’s season time, after all. Why didn’t you book ahead?
Utterly unsure of ourselves, with no idea if we’re being given the right information, but with no better plan, we hail a rickshaw. The 15 year old driver swerves in and out of the crazy, noisy flood of traffic. We’re not sure if he understood us or knows where to go … we point to the name written down on a piece of paper, and he just nods, hoots furiously at fellow commuters, and swerves to dodge assorted livestock.
Miraculously, we get to the right place. Desperate, dehydrated and overwhelmed, we find a ticket office. “We want Volvo bus to Manali tonight please.”
“Tonight? Not possible. Full. Only local bus.” Double, triple shit. With no overnight bus, options are now down to staying overnight in Delhi, or spending 15+ hours on a hot, dirty, cramped bus. We ask him again if he’s sure there’s nothing. He looks pissed, and when we ask for local bus ticket prices, that’s suddenly full too.
As we turn around and walk away, on the verge of admitting defeat, we’re approached by another small indian man. He’s not smiling. “Looking Volvo bus ticket to Manali? Come.” He has no uniform, no name tag, only a striped shirt and slightly dodgy air. But we’re out of options, so we follow him, out of the main station, down towards the train ticket offices, stopping once when we convince ourselves this is entirely too shady and we’re on the brink of getting kidnapped, or worse. He turns around, and with a long-suffering sigh, tries to assure us in bad English, and takes a more well-lit route.
We’re taken to a legit-looking ticket office (they had signage), where we end up buying two tickets, deeply suspicious of the whole setup and unwilling to believe that we may have found a tiny glimmer of hope. It’s only when we’re safely ensconced on the bus, clutching a mango smoothy in one hand, and a roadside omelet in the other, that we dare relax, just a fraction. As it sinks in that this wild goose chase is over, we laugh with relief, pent up nerves, and sheer exhaustion, chomp our omelets, and fall asleep.