I was doubtful from the moment the travel agent handed me the bus ticket. It was hand written. He made a phone call in Hindi, told me there was one more sleeper berth available, and confirmed that I wanted that seat. He wrote the location of the bus pickup, a local cinema parking lot, on the back.
I looked at the paper ticket quizzically.
"Now you pay me 1100 rupees," he says.
"This is my ticket?" I ask.
"But it's not printed. Don't you need my name and my age or something?"
"No. It's in my name. Any trouble you call me."
I'd tried to book the very same ticket online, but the bus company wouldn't accept my international credit card. The travel agent is right about the price and the one available seat. It is exactly what I'd wanted to purchase one my own, but instead I've found myself in this small shop wedged between street carts selling parathas and momos.
As I continue to inspect the ticket I notice that he has crossed out the travel agency letterhead and written the bus company name in its place. Doubt fills my face. The owner's father, who has been sitting silently next to the large Coca-Cola fridge, loudly interrupts my worried thoughts.
"We are trustworthy! Look we do this for a long time!"
I don't know if his words comfort me or just startle me, but I give them the money, stick the ticket in my purse, and leave.
"Come back that day at 5pm, and we'll get you a rickshaw to the bus! 30 rupees," the owner yells after me.
Amritsar was my first real introduction to the north. In the 3 months I spent in the south, any comments about traffic, noise, or general chaos were met with, "wait until you get to the north." It only took five minutes here to understand why.
Even now just steps outside of the travel agency is an assault on the senses. Cast iron skillets are filled with oil that crackles as samosas turn golden brown. Small piles of garbage burn next to shops with neon signs and glittery bangles. Large fruit carts are pushed slowly down the street, filled with vibrant colors that sharply contrast the rusty wheels. There is always something to hold your attention, and there is no such thing as personal space. The only way to move is to decide that you belong just as much as the motorbike, cow, or person next to you does.
On my last day in Amritsar I return to the travel agency at 5pm as suggested.
"Here I am!" I announce in a tone that I hope conveys, "Your hand-written ticket better be real!"
The owner finds a bike rickshaw to take me to the bus, and unsurprisingly the fare is double what he had quoted me. Normally I'd prefer to walk, but the parking lot is far away, and there's no clear path to get there.
The bike moves through the winding streets with ease. At this rate I'll arrive at the bus quite early. Thinking this is foolish, and, of course, we soon hit busy streets that require much yelling and even pushing as my driver tries to get a cart ahead of him to move into incoming traffic.
I nervously check the time. Nearly 10 minutes of waiting at one intersection is followed by more chaos ahead. We arrive at a nondescript parking lot with 20 minutes to spare. This momentarily feels like a victory, but there are no buses here. Instead the parking lot holds a handful of broken down vans, and a group of men sit under an umbrella smoking.
My driver says something to them in Hindi, and I only understand that the answer is no. I start asking questions aloud to anyone, searching for eyes that understand me.
One man stares at his phone, but speaks up, "you're in the wrong place. No bus here."
I show him my ticket with the address written on the back, and I begin asking a series of questions. He is indifferent, and his eyes stay glued to the screen. I have interrupted his quiet time.
"May I use your phone to call the travel agent?" I ask.
This final word sets off the traveler equivalent of fight-or-flight response, and I rush to the street. The first person I see walking near the parking lot entrance is an Indian man in jeans and a plaid shirt. My usually shy self doesn't have the luxury of hesitation. Words spill out of my mouth.
"Excuse me! Do you have a phone I could use?!"
He smiles and pulls an iPhone out of his pocket. There's no time to show how happy I am. Without asking I start walking with it and him back into the parking lot.
He yells to the men in Hindi, and they seem to tell him the same thing they told my driver, who has since left. I dial the travel agent's number and hand the phone back to my new friend.
After a short conversation he explains that traffic is so bad that bus couldn't get to this part of town, so it should be parked somewhere near the bus company's offices instead.
"Follow me," he says.
I have no idea where my bus is or why he's helping me, but following him is all I can do. I thank him and introduce myself, and he tells me his name is Rishi. He quotes the distance to the office in kilometers, and it seems far too long for the little time I have. I try to walk faster.
We talk about Amritsar and what a headache traveling can be. After a couple blocks I'm already sweating, and suddenly he asks me to wait at the curb. He waves to a friend in a nearby tea shop, and I watch them exchange words and laugh. I'm anxious to keep moving and wonder why he's wasting precious time.
Moment later he pats his friend on the back and runs back to the road. As he approaches he waves a key in his hand.
"My friend's bike! Over here!" he says.
This man that I accosted on the sidewalk 10 minutes ago is now borrowing his friend's motorbike to drive me around and look for my missing bus. Again, I follow.
The bike seamlessly weaves through traffic with a grace that I, as a passenger, do not have. Every sudden turn and speed bump pulls at my backpack and attempts to take me with it. My hands grip the metal bars near the seat as though that will lessen the effect of gravity.
We drive for a distance that would have taken far more than 20 minutes on foot, and we arrive at a row of bus and tour companies. From the street it's obvious that the office is closed, and my heart drops. Rishi yells something in Hindi to some men nearby. The only thing I understand is the urgency in each man's tone of voice, and we're suddenly moving again.
We make our way through a smaller, quieter neighborhood, and Rishi slows the bike to yell to more people. We drive another block, and he yells again. Each time I only recognize the name of the bus company. He's simply asking each person we see if they know where the bus is.
This continues for 5 more minutes. On big and small streets with sudden turns around sharp corners. Some people point in a direction and others just shake their heads no. It feels like we're driving in circles.
I'm tempted to laugh. Because it's all so ridiculous. I'm on a motorcycle with a complete stranger, and he's yelling to complete strangers trying to find a bus that I have a hand-written ticket for. I'm ready to chalk the whole thing up as just an amusing story with an "I missed the bus" ending when we emerge from a narrow alley onto yet another busy street and come to a quick stop.
"Let me see your ticket!" he says urgently.
I fumble around to find it in a side pocket of my bag. He glances at it, lifts his head, and points a finger.
"That's your bus!"
As though it had materialized out of thin air, sure enough a sleeper bus is no more than half a block away from us. I have no words.
We drive the short distance with my jaw hanging, and as we stop the bus attendant confirms that this is, in fact, the correct bus. He motions for me to hurry, and I'm frozen attempting to find the right words for Rishi.
I get "thank you" out of my mouth as many times as I can, and I continue to say it as I walk backwards to the bus. But it doesn't feel like enough.
I find my small, sleeper berth on the bus and make myself comfortable. In India the word Rishi is sometimes used as a title to address revered spiritual teachers with respect. It's a Hindi word that means sage or ray of light. It will be a 17 hour ride to Jaipur, but for the first couple hours I need no books or music. My mind is completely occupied with astonishment and gratitude that I found a Rishi exactly when I needed one.