The Kashmiri bus fare collector is full of facts.
“You know India is a big country. Very big country.” he beams, with that special brand of pride exhibited only by rickshaw / chai / bus fare wallahs when they discuss India with foreigners.
“There is 30 uh-states in India and 35 languages. Many languages in India. In Ladakh they speak Ladakhi, in Jammu there are Urdu, in Kashmir, Kashmiri. So even in one uh-state there is three languages.” The way he says ’states’ is endearing. He prefaces it with a half-syllable that sounds a bit like ‘uh’, but shorter. It’s reminiscent of the way Spanish speakers say ‘sp’ words in English, like special or spring. Especial. Espring. Uh-states. The Kashmiri bus fare collector is nice and smiley.
“Where are you from?” comes the tried and true Indian conversation filler.
“Australia”, I reply.
“Aaah Ricky Ponting! Good cricket player. Very good captain.” The Kashmiri bus fare collector’s factoids extend to cricket, but clearly not to the recent past. I try to tell him that Ricky Ponting is no longer the captain but he interjects.
“Australia is a very good at cricket. But Indian team is better!” He rattles off some Indian cricket player names as proof of his statement, while I politely nod and return his smile.
All of a sudden there is a cold sensation, and the Ladakhi girls just ahead of me scream. Someone in a passing vehicle has played a practical joke by throwing a bucket of water at the passengers seated atop our bus. It’s a shock, but quite a welcome one as we’re travelling in the dusty midday heat. The collective astonishment quickly transitions to laughter and there’s a jovial atmosphere on top of the bus to Leh.
Of course, the locals, and particularly the Kashmiri bus-fare collector have done this before. We (Mesi, our friend Noa and I) are the wide-eyed rookies, grinning stupidly and taking selfies as we live the Indian traveller dream of riding on top of a bus. To our fellow bus surfers it’s nothing more than another ride. As if to mock my exuberance, there’s a Ladakhi toddler next to me fast asleep.
We enjoy our ride on the roof of the bus. I take in the sights from my ultimate ‘window seat’ – a local carnival, a jeep full of monks travelling red and yellow in front of us, a monastery set up on a hill. And as the foreground changes, always in the back is the stark, captivating Ladakhi landscape. I feel the wind and touch passing prayer flags, strung up between poles above the road. It’s exhilarating.
The bus takes a sudden left and passes down a small dip between two roads. For a moment the bus is not level. The passengers lurch and I grab a handrail to avoid piling into the person next to me. The Kashmiri bus fare collector laughs, and with a smile that is totally inappropriate for the content of the sentence says,
“The roof is the most dangerous!”
The toddler next to me continues sleeping.