I took an overnight bus from Amsterdam to Berlin, because the desi in me figured I’d save a night’s stay somewhere. In case you are interested, a number of my trips were pre-planned and booked through Omio and it’s all pretty convenient and reliable.
Amongst many other differences, one of the starkest is the emptiness of European bus-terminals, especially for an overnight bus, compared to an Indian bus-terminal. That evening in May ’19, when I got to the bus-station near Sloterdijk, the entire lot was empty and almost dark. There was just a small group of people collected around a bus. I walked past them looking for where I was expecting to see the bus to Berlin.
There is something about being a woman from a South Asian region, we are all highly alert in the dark and lonely corners of our world. So here I was, alone in the dark, and add to that, the stress of possibly having missed my bus. What if this wasn’t the bus terminal at all? All my future pre-booked journeys! All the pre-booked places to stay! All that money!
Every step I took around that empty lot made me more and more nervous. Until I saw a small-built man with Asiatic features; he had a small bag and was also pacing around the corners of the empty bus-stand. He passed me once, and then again when he was walking back. Something about seeing a face that was vaguely familiar made me call out to him for help. Did he know anything about the 8 pm bus to Berlin? Oh he was travelling on the same bus too?! Wow, alright, can you imagine, we can’t find the bus…do you think it’s left. Ah yes, you are right we still have about 10 minutes and these Europeans are very punctual aren’t they? So where is the bus? And where are you from anyway?
I wasn’t expecting this, but A_ turned out to be a compatriot…a fellow Indian and from a nearby region too- Assam! What were the chances?!
So here we were, two lost Indians looking for a bus to Berlin. In a bus-station that was so unlike ours. Where were the countless, aimless people walking around whom you could just tap on their shoulders and ask “Brother, where is the bus to Berlin?”. Where were the all-night chai-wallahs, cheap tea-shacks with busy hands exchanging money for the tiniest cups of tea (under 50 ml). They always had people who were human “information kiosks”.
Suddenly I was missing the highly un-organised and informal country that I came from. We have chaos, but there is also a strange order in that chaos. It’s a complex system by itself, like an anthill, moulding around structures. Incredibly resilient too, except when it comes to some overnight exogenous shocks. Such shocks that have only come twice in my lifetime…one was during the ill-conceived and over-night “demonetisation” of 2016, and the other has been during this corona-lockdown of 2020. Breaks my heart to think of the complete breakdown of our own chaos, all because of some ham-handed men. But I digress…
So here were the two of us, and a missing bus. After a few more rounds of the station, A_ decided that he wanted to check out what looked like a CityBus terminal. Later we realised that this was for well…city buses, and not our inter-country bus with the same descriptive name. We even lost each other in this madness, and now I was really worried, three minutes to 8 and I had lost a friend and was probably missing my trip.
I still don’t know what made me head back to the first bus I’d seen earlier in the evening, but I am so glad that I did. The group of people waiting were now boarding, and as I got closer, the driver was getting into his seat. Was the CityBus to Berlin I asked in a last hopeless effort. Yes indeed it was! I still cannot get over that immense relief, you know when you have narrowly missed something that could have been a mini-disaster?
But once inside I was worried again…what about A_? He’d run off looking for the CityBus terminal and we’d lost each other. Did he run back to where I was? Should I ask the driver to wait? Were drivers in Europe okay with these “please adjust na” kind of requests?
Just as I was tangling myself in self-made complexities, A_ walked into the bus! Lovely! We greeted each other happily, laughing at our collective anxiety and relief that was washing over us. And now we could discuss Berlin and what we were planning to do there. It turned out that we were staying in hostels that were close-ish, so we decided we’d do the Brandenburg walk together.