In 1993, I spent five months in India working on a children’s book and other photographic projects. I remember some pretty lonely moments. One of those times was during a nine-hour bus ride of heavy thoughts from Mangalore to Bangalore, alone in a third world country without another living soul aware of my whereabouts. This was years before internet and international cell phones.
This leg of my trip was unexpected. My film, sent from Nebraska to Mangalore, was sitting in the Customs office in Bangalore waiting for me to claim it. So instead of moving north up the coast in route to Bombay and my next magazine assignment, I boarded a pre-dawn bus, for an out-of-the-way ride eastward to the landlocked state capital.
I arrived early at the bus station and took great care in selecting my seat. At the last minute, a large Indian man sat next to me, his body overextending his seat into mine, touching my left side from shoulder to knee until he got off at his predetermined destination five hours later.
A young child with matted black hair thrust a beat up stainless steel plate at me with a few coins on it, gurgling sounds while she begged.
Our first stop was for breakfast. We all piled off the bus and into a restaurant where I sat silently with three men, feeling unsocial while I drank a cup of coffee and watched them eat with their hands. A shrill whistle sounded. It was time to get back on. I climbed over the fat man and stuck my head out the window. A young child with matted black hair thrust a beat up stainless steel plate at me with a few coins on it, gurgling sounds while she begged.
All day, I took everything in as our bus chugged up mountainous roads and passed other vehicles carelessly going down. My world was seen through a sequence of still images, captured in horizontal frames. It was a lonely day, a sad day. Everything around me seemed so depressing.
At our next 10 minute stop, I scurried off in search of a bathroom, though it was closed for some reason. Overuse? There was smelly water covering the floor. A small boy was defecating outside, in front of God and everyone else. Hundreds of people were standing around, women in their brightly colored saris and men in their drab white, brown, or black attire. Everyone was headed somewhere, or nowhere, under the colorless light of the mid-day sun.
The fat man got off the bus and an old woman with a thick mustache and stubble of a beard took the seat next to me. Her skin was the color and texture of a piece of beef jerky. She reached across me with a frown on her masculine face and closed my window. Our eyes met briefly, and I proceeded to stare out at the passing landscape, my nose pressed up against the glass, immersed in my thoughts.
The scenery changed drastically from that with which I had become familiar on the coast: lush green rice paddy fields and groves of coconut trees. For brief moments it was as if I were in the Nebraska Sandhills with its rolling land covered by dry sagebrush; or in Arizona, where the earth is red and cactus line the roads. But there were sure signs that I was not in America: a water buffalo submerged in a pond, harnessed oxen tilling a field guided by a weather-beaten barefoot farmer, women washing their clothes under a communal faucet, while a naked young boy bathed.
The “movie” outside my window seemed to be stuck on slow speed. It felt as if our bus was the only thing moving.
I was reading Jack Kerouc’s novel On the Road during this momentous bus ride and came to the following line: “I felt like a speck on the surface of the sad red earth.” It was exactly how I felt.
Then things got better.
We flew by what appeared to be a mirage in this otherwise dry, brown, lifeless environment, adding color to my dark mood: two small square pieces of irrigated land, one of bright green, the other a golden yellow. Between them, on a raised footpath, ran a woman wearing a sari that matched the yellow field, flowing behind her and aglow from the backlit sun.
Ah, there was life after all. My spirits were lifted.