India: A Near Death Experience

Staring Death in the Face: Karma Roads in India

An incredible view Near Manali India. Matthew Stone Photos.
An incredible view Near Manali India. Matthew Stone Photos.

By Matthew Stone

A colorful street in India for shopping and eating.The roads in northern India are intended for two-way traffic, though they are rarely wide enough to accommodate two vehicles side by side. Full of terrible potholes and absent any guardrails, they snake in long, narrow stretches between towns.

The terrifying roads curve through the Himalayas along the edges of breath-taking drops and beneath looming mountains of loose shale. It’s a beautiful sight, in a terrifying way, and anxiety seems inevitable no matter what side of the bus you sit on.

I'm still not exactly sure what went wrong that night when the truck hit our bus. Usually when two larger vehicles approach from opposite ways they will slow down, inch a little further to the outside, and pass with just enough room to spare. Perhaps the truck driver was in a hurry and thought he had safely cleared us. Maybe he just couldn't see; on that moonless night anything on the road would be difficult to spot.

A beautiful site with mountains as the backdrop. Actually, I never saw the crash at all, and I doubt any of the other passengers did either. I was fast asleep, my girlfriend's head on my left shoulder and Colin sitting to my right. The truck had struck the back right corner of the bus; I woke suddenly to find we were in a screeching slide.

Even More Issues

The crash wasn't the first time I'd had problems on the night bus while traveling in northern India. It was only a week earlier when a similar situation arose while I was on the way into McLeod Ganj.

This time the culprit was a large pothole, but it played out in much the same way. I was fast asleep, suddenly awoken by a bump in the night and finding myself sitting on a sliding bus.

A few seconds later, the bus was stopped, severely tilted towards the right. The driver ordered the passengers off, to stand in the dark so he could backup and realign the bus on the road. None of us argued, though I almost wished I had. That way I'd never have seen what we'd avoided by about four feet. Directly before us was a hairpin turn with no guardrail. Beyond that, the mountain dropped two hundred feet into a raging river.

The view from the window of the bus.
The view from the window of the bus.

The driver did eventually get the bus on track, and somehow I was able to get back on. We spent more than a week with in McLeod Ganj, perched over a gorgeous valley and in the company of exiled Tibetan monks. It was the kind of place that could make you easily forget how you got there, until it was time to leave.

For the sake of my mother, who might one day read this, I wish I could say I tried to find another way out of there. While it’s true that the trains don't run up in that region, and airports are extremely rare, there probably were other options to explore that didn’t involve riding a bus in the middle of the night.

But by then we had been on Indian roads for five weeks, and in a way we had become comfortable with an uncomfortable truth: on the road we were on, brushes with death were in high supply and impossible to avoid.

Getting The Bus

We were late to the bus the night we left; we found it already idling and its roof overflowing with luggage. We would have to take seats in the very back row, cramming our bags onto our laps and between our legs.

Colin, a recent college grad with a guitar strapped to his back, was far less neurotic about it than me. He wedged himself into the back right corner of the bus. I was in the seat beside him and my girlfriend was to the left of me.

We were barely fitting into our seats with our luggage when the German girls in front of us jacked back their seats, pinning us like the safety bar on a roller coaster. Sensing our discomfort (actually I’m sure it was pretty obvious), two young Indian men offered to switch. It turned out they were traveling with the girls in front of us, and wouldn't mind if the girls were leaning back into them. We thanked them and slid down two spots, grunting along with our luggage.

Monks outnumber cars on the roads in McLeod Ganj.
Monks outnumber cars on the roads in McLeod Ganj.

The five of us, true back-rowers, all made small talk for the first little while. We took turns strumming the guitar and swapping stories. The two Indians turned out to be really cool. I wish I could remember both of their names, but I can’t. I only remember the name of the guy on the far right, because his friend was screaming it later on.

When the truck hit, we guessed Rahul must have been sleeping with his head leaned on the window. When all the glass shattered out, it left him with an eight-inch gash that ran down the top of his head like a zipper. Due to the amount of blood that was catching in his throat, I can only assume that wasn't the limit of his injuries.

We didn't know at first that he had been hurt. When the bus stopped and we were all brushing away the glass, it seemed that the initial panic would subside quickly into relief. My girlfriend was fine, as was I, as was Colin. It wasn't until we heard the man beside us calling his friend's name that our hearts fell into our stomachs. We realized that not everyone had woken up.

It was a good thing several of the passengers were Israeli combat medics, because the actual drivers weren’t much help. As soon as the bus stopped, they rushed out to stand in the middle of the road with their cell phones pinned to their head. Assessing the damage I suppose, but more likely they didn’t want any blood on their hands, neither literally nor figuratively.

Waiting For The Ambulance

The Israelis worked for almost an hour to keep Rahul alive, while the blood quickly drained from his body. His friend cradled him the whole time, his face twisted in anguish and disbelief. The wait for the ambulance was agonizing, but it did eventually come.

Another 'killer' view from an Indian road.
Another 'killer' view from an Indian road.

When Rahul and his friend were gone, we all stood in the ditch, chain-smoking and trying to reassure one another that he would pull through.

The unofficial trauma team of Israeli hippies all but guaranteed that he’d be okay. We all chose to believe it, even nervously joking about being ‘survivors’ whenever we ran into each other over the following days in Rishikesh. That was until we talked to one passenger that had found out Rahul had actually died later that night in the hospital.

I won’t try and speculate as to why exactly that man didn't live. It would be too easy to suggest that there were deficiencies with the local emergency response team. Nor is my intention, to offer a cautionary tale or try and scare people away from India. I'm sure that those who have seriously considered traveling to India know about the risks involved.

It Could Have Been Me

The truth is, I haven't thought all that much about it. I try not to think about the fact that it could have been my girlfriend or me sitting there. I try really hard not to think about the fact that it was our friend sitting there until he was kindly offered to switch seats. It’s too terrible to think about, that hypothetical call to a young kid’s parents in North Carolina, telling them that I'd seen their son die on a bus in northern India.

Instead, I think back to the first close call we had, the week earlier. That time the bus almost went over the cliff, but didn't, and everyone was fine after. I remember looking over the edge, into the hole in the earth that had nearly swallowed me. I remember how I suddenly found myself thinking about Karma. I was never one to believe in that kind of stuff, but the old saying 'When in Rome' had suddenly come to mind.

Matthew HeadshotMatthew Stone has been running away from the Canadian winter for the past five years. During that time, he's traveled extensively in Asia and North America. He currently lives in Phuket, Thailand.

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