Bus 1: I catch the local, sarkari (government) bus from Chandigarh to Delhi. It's 160 rupees and relatively empty. I brush some peanut shells off my part of the four-foot seat and sit alone, strategically, in the middle. It's 30 degrees outside so I force the rusted window shut and start eating a pack of Hide-and-Seek biscuits. My backpack is stuffed under my legs. A thin, dark man in the adjacent seat is wrapped in a tan colored woolen shawl. He adjusts a bundle of boxes, bigger than him, and turns just to stare.
Bus 2: I wait in a line for a 350 Rs. ticket onto the semi-deluxe Volvo bus from Chandigarh to Delhi. The girl next to me tucks and re-tucks her blow-dried, highlighted hair behind her ear and asks me if there is a women's line. There isn't, but we make one anyway.In the queue there are college students, businessmen and a handful of skinny-jean clad 20-something women. We get a ticket with a number -- there are two cushioned seats on each side. A man stands behind the bus, loading the luggage into a trunk.
Bus 1: The window is not staying shut. A biting wind makes me tremble so hard that my muscles get sore. We stop every half an hour. Stop is misleading -- the bus coasts as men jump on and off with heavy bags. The previously empty seats fill up with five in each bench, and a column of passengers stand in the aisle, eating roasted peanuts. The bus is loud, from the cursing driver to the whistling ticket conductor to the men who are comparing notes about their shops, their goods, their next stop. My leg is pressed against my neighbor's, but I'm too cold to move.
Bus 2: The bus is like an airplane with the sealed off windows and the personal AC vents. When the college kids start to laugh, they get an angry stare from the businessman in front.. Laptops are out, iPod earphones are in, and various McDonald bags have started to appear. The girl next to me reads Cosmo (India) and snacks on french fries. I eat more Hide-and-Seek biscuits (yes, an addiction) and drift off to sleep.
Bus 1: The fog and pollution is thick, and a ten foot visibility is reason for screeching, constant honking. The journey is stretching past the promised 5-hour mark and I'm starting to get nervous about being in Delhi alone later than I thought. When my friend calls to find out where I am I can hardly hear her voice amid the chaos. As I ask her what stop to get off at, the man next to me listens in. "No, beta, get off at Kashmiri Gate," he tells me, saying it's a shorter route. A few surrounding passengers chime in with their opinions, promising to show me the quickest way home.
Bus 2: It's getting late, but we're making good time. The bus pulls into a Haveli, a faux-Punjabi-village scene that serves as a ritzy rest stop. There is a long line of food stalls, from hot jalebis to veggie burgers to a chocolate shop. I get a sandwich and hot almond milk in a clay cup. Tourists shop for graphis t-shirts with pictures of the Indian lorries (trucks) and dholkis. My neighbor and I walk together, and she asks me what part of Delhi I'm from. Proud to be mistaken for a local, I grin and say Florida.
Bus 1: We stop at a roadside Dhaba. There is a tea stall where hundreds of cups of garam chai in steel cups. A man with a cart sells chole bature, steaming with butter and fragrant from 20 feet away. I buy some chai and a packet of puffed moong daal and climb back on the bus to stay away from the cold, and the men.
Bus 2: We pull into Chandigarh right on time, and climb of the bus in a sleepy, quiet row. There are drivers waiting at the door to take passengers' bags and lead them to a row of Hyundari Santros and Honda Citys. I cross the road to hail an auto and am lucky to get one within minutes. I climb up the stairs to the apartment, where everyone around me is asleep. I put my bags down, change my clothes, and rest.
Bus 1: There are six people now concerned with my travel plans. They know I'm not a local and they know I'm scared, but assured me it will be fine. They give me bus routes, auto rickshaw rates and even their own mobile numbers to make sure I make it home. The metro is closed by now, but my friend is come to pick me up. When my stop comes, the conductor whistles and the bus makes a complete, actual stop for me. It's warmer on the ground without the wind, and I sprint across the road to go home.