We arrived in Mcleod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh (seat of the Tibetan government in exile and residence of the Dalai Lama) via the most comfortable bus I've ridden on any continent. Let me qualify that. The seats reclined further than any I’ve experienced on commercial transportation, the overhead lights shone with the perfect degree of luminosity for desultory reading, and the upholstery was blessedly free of malodorous mystery stains. In all other ways, it was about as uncomfortable as any overnight bus ride in India is destined to be, due to the liberally cratered road surfaces, periodic REM cycles of our driver, and a form of on-board entertainment that mesmerized and alarmed all passengers save one- the performer himself. For eleven hours and forty minutes.
At the front of the bus, just a few rows ahead of where I sat and directly across from two of my female students, was a wiry Tibetan man in his twenties with a hennaed mullet/goatee combo, hand-held MP3 player, and some very tenacious ear buds. How do I know this? Because for the better part of our twelve hour journey, he proceeded to spasm and contort with the chutzpah of an epileptic Liz Minelli, utilizing every available surface as prop and partner, including his seat, the plexiglass shield separating him from the driver, the overhead compartments, the side windows, and his beleaguered seat mate’s armrest.
Every lurch of the bus seemed to inspire a new movement sequence, as he transitioned seamlessly from the “Axel Rose Stationary Waddle” to “Mime in a Glass Box” to the lesser known but no less compelling “Man with Bear Claws Walking on Eggshells”. His range was baffling but boundless. With his beat-up Vans and oblivious trance, he could’ve been just another tweaked-out Venice Beach side show, but our Dharamsala-bound bus, his angular Asian features and turquoise “Free Tibet” t-shirt hinted at a different story. The students held it together reasonably well, even though his airborne perspiration flecked their new punjabis as he began humping his seat sideways, then nearly launched himself out of the side window entirely. Of course, when he stepped off the bus to relieve himself, the entire bus broke into incredulous guffaws, and from behind me I heard one of my less diplomatic students bellow “What the f***? Who the f*** do you think you f***ing are, Michael f****ing Jackson?!” (We are working on “right speech” in this program, but we’ve still got a ways to go- can I buy another asterix, Pat?).
His brush with self- induced defenestration inspired our intrepid entertainer to confine his gyrations and gesticulations to his seat for a spell. This gave rise to an unprecedented series of head and neck improvisations that would’ve made all but the most stalwart chiropractor implode with dismay. Inevitably, the rhythm drove our tireless friend to his feet once more, and he was still perfecting his windmilling jazz hands and pelvic thrusts as we rolled into Mcleod Ganj the next morning. The students bore no grudge, and some even snapped a few photos with him before disembarking. They tucked themselves under his wiry wings, and his hollow, sweat-slicked cheeks pressed to theirs like they were boozy pledge sisters at a spring formal.
My co-leader was red-eyed from his night of vigilance in the seat in front of mine, unwilling to allow this whirling wild card an unmonitored moment in such precarious proximity to our students. As for me, between the unpredictable jolts of the vehicle, flapping and flailing at the front of the bus, and my inventive but unsustainable sleeping posture contortions, I stumbled away with only a few stolen hours’ repose. This would have been completely impossible if not for a double dose of Melatonin, to be referred to hereafter as “Melastonin’”. Seriously, my jaw went numb, and I think I saw my third eye when I caught my bleary reflection in the window. If Mister Magic Moves hadn’t still been getting his groove on when I re-surfaced at around 4am, I probably would have consigned him to the realm of “natural sleep aid”-induced hallucinations as well. I guess we both needed a little something extra to get through the night.
In retrospect, I may have gotten exactly what I asked for when I boarded the bus in Delhi. I believe my exact words were “Wow, check this bus out! This is going to be the best bus ride ever!” Of course, the gods must know that I am a closet devotee of all things “dance”. Fame, Star Search, you name it. I even turn off the ringer on my phone for a new episode of “Dance Your Ass Off”, and not turn it back on until I’ve wept my way through the final elimination round. Next time, I will just have to be a little more specific. Saturday Night Fever is no substitute for a good night’s sleep.