They say not to take candy from a stranger but they never said anything about curry puffs.
I sat on the bus munching the curry puff I had just been given by a stranger, wondering what it was going to do to me. Not so much because it was from a stranger, but because I was in India. Alone.
The good news is that I had not started hyperventilating yet (too tiring) but it was always an option. I was on a bus and not quite sure where I was going.
The kind smiles of the couple sitting across the aisle from me comforted me temporarily - that, and the fact that they both spoke English. I had met the girl as I disembarked from the plane a few minutes earlier and when she realised that I had no one meeting me at the airport, and planned to get a taxi by myself to a tiny town three hours away, she and her boyfriend took me under their wing.
Come and get the bus with them, they had said, it would take me as far as the bus station where I could get a bus or taxi to my destination. Apparently it would only take half an hour, and was on the way to where I was going: Chingavanam, a town near Kottayam in Kerala, India's south. So in my delirious, sleep-deprived state I boarded the bus, accepted a kind curry puff from a stranger and tried to see if my phone would work.
Cellphone reception was limited but I had pre-loaded a map on my phone before we left so I watched as the little blue dot tracked our path through Kerala. Half an hour turned into forty-five minutes, and it was at least an hour before we hit the bus station where I found myself unceremoniously ousted from the bus and thrust into the melee of the station. Waving goodbye to my new-found friends and curry-puff givers, I realised that now I was really alone. Like, really. Alone.
Panic was an option but I decided against it and instead turned around in search of someone who looked like they spoke English. Unfortunately people don't wear signs telling you which language they speak and I probably could have kept on turning all day before I found someone, had I not spotted a sign which looked official (though I could not read it) next to a man who looked official (though I could not read him either… On account of him not being a sign). I approached him but apparently looking official is not synonymous with being able to speak English so he referred me to another official-looking man who did.
The non-air-conditioned bus
By the time I had double-checked with five other people, I looked up to see the air-conditioned bus rolling away. The next bus due to leave was non-air conditioned which I thought I could handle but let me tell you, in India, AC and non-AC are two different worlds. The non-AC bus was packed with people. And sweat. It was going to be a long ride.
The bus ticket man (that is probably not his official title) approached me as I sat on my suitcase in the tiny aisle and started speaking rapidly in Malayalam, the local language. It honestly sounded like he was talking in Morse code so I stared at him, agape, because (a) I did not understand a word he was saying, and (b) I had never seen someone speak Morse code before. "This is amazing," I said to myself.
We finally figured out that I had to pay 50 rupees ($1) and that I was not allowed to sit on my suitcase which I promptly disobeyed because apparently the ride would take me an hour and a half or two, which is about as much sleep as I'd had the night before.
The bus wound through tiny dirt roads surrounded by beautiful, lush foliage. Rivers framed by palm fronds reminded me why Kerala is known as 'God's own country', and I felt safe, surrounded by the beauty of the One who holds me in his hands.
As passengers disembarked, a kind older lady made room for me on a seat next to her and started a conversation. Through her broken English I made out that she was an English teacher.
She told me that Chingavanam, my destination, was only one and a half hours away. This was a bit of a worry. I had already been on the bus for a couple of hours, so once again I turned to the comforting blue dot on the screen of my phone, which told me that I was, in fact, somewhere. And that somewhere existed on a map. Sadly though, the blue dot was following a convoluted path through the back streets of a place whose name I could only dream of pronouncing, and I'm pretty sure we were going in circles.
Either way I was getting extremely agitated and kept asking my new friend politely yet insistently when was the next stop where I could get off and get a taxi. She kept answering politely yet insistently that it was better that I stay in the bus, and that it was not very far away at all. By this point I realised that not very far meant "really very extremely far away".
"You are like my son"
So I'm glad I worked that out. After about the sixth time asking, she had an idea. She did not want me in a taxi alone, and her home was not too far from where I was going to stay so she would accompany me there to make sure I was safe. I almost cried.
"My son is your age also, he living in Saudi Arabia," she said. I thought I was about to receive a marriage proposal, but she went on. "Somebody in Saudi Arabia is looking after him," she explained to me. "And now I look after you. To me you are like my son."
I gave her a big smile and hugged her. How amazing that I just happened to sit next to the one woman who would look after me and treat me like her son. Coincidence? I think not, I thought as I smiled at heaven.
Watching her negotiate with the auto-rickshaw driver in rapid Malayalam, it dawned on me that I would never have been able to do it by myself. I had been provided with an angel in the form of an English teacher who hardly spoke English.
And as I bid her goodbye I realised that even though I was in India, I was never really alone.
Grace Mathew is a Sydney-based writer whose travels often turn into adventures.
Grace Mathew's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/grace-mathew.html