Red Bus

Normally every big city has a few get away close-by locations to spend a weekend or even for a day picnic. Sometime if a place is very popular, then people who have to travel to that location over and over, need to get creative in order to derive more fun from repeated trips.

For us in Mumbai, the most popular such an escapade is Lonavala. It is rather smallish hill station, but is very popular among people of Mumbai and Pune as well. It is two hour drive from Mumbai and just about an hour from Pune. Mumbai being such a fast paced city, a lot of people drive down to Lonavala to take a breath of much needed fresh air. Although a distance of only 120 km separates Mumbai and Lonavala; Lonavala gets bitterly cold in winters, compared to Mumbai.

From the time we got the first six lane high-speed expressway connecting two cities, people have been zipping across at not less than 100kmph, making the travel time even shorter.

For environment conscious people not owning a car, there are options of numerous buses. Oldest bus service is State Transport Corporation, Maharashtra or ST in short. Its non-A/C simple red color buses weave a very intricate web of convenient routes across Maharashtra’s towns and smallest villages. It is also the cheapest mode of road transport. Thus, it serves the least affluent of the state. At next level come ‘Asiad’ buses; also run by ST, mainly connecting Mumbai with Pune at regular intervals and many more cities. Originally these buses were used during India’s 1982 Asian Games or ‘Asiad’, in New Delhi. These were used to ferry sportspersons and other officials between sporting arenas and hotels. After arriving in Mumbai, name ‘Asiad’ stayed as the name of bus service too. In the beginning they were very popular among regular travelers. They were considered stylish, comfortable and dependable. Although today after so many years obviously they look washed out and shabby compared to new Volvos in-use. They have given excellent service for nearly 30 years. Most of them now are in the process of being replaced with better bodied air-conditioned ones.

Since the completion of expressway in 2002, nobody seems to be using the good old ‘Poona Highway’ or NH-4, as it has been known as, any more. Most of the public and private traffic has diverted itself towards more expensive but faster and smoother express-way, since everyone is always in a hurry to get to their destinations.

One fine day, I was traveling to Pune alone. So, I decided to relive the nostalgia of NH-4. I decided that I would not opt for hurry or luxury. So, instead of a taxi, I took Mumbai’s local BEST bus to Chembur from my locality. Chembur is an important exit point of Mumbai; thus it has a State Transport bus-stand near RK studios. I parked myself at the bus-stop and informed the booking office that I needed one ticket to Pune.

‘Time pass, time pass’, the peanut seller appeared. I bought some. Soon many red Asiads started lining up. Conductor pointed towards a Pune bus and asked me to get in. He said it will reach fast since it is going by the new route. He was surprised when I told him that I want to travel by NH-4, the old route. I did not have to wait much. Soon another red bus arrived. Conductor told me that is your bus. The bus surprisingly had seat numbers and I got a seat as per my ticket. I was traveling in a non-A/C bus after ages. Passengers were so cordial and gentle.

Due to traveling by the new Expressway so many times, I had forgotten the landmarks of the old route. Soon the memories started getting refreshed, as the bus entered a crowded and always unclean, Panvel bus depot. This bus was stopping at every small little village, for the convenience of the poor villager’s destinations. It was entering each bus station for a few minutes and moving out. It was a good opportunity for me to feel all those places all over again, which I used pass during every trip.

Another main nostalgic point was Khopoli. It used to be the most popular break point for passengers. Everyone would halt here for snacks and beverages. From here the hilly region or Ghats starts. So people prefer to cool their cars a bit. Stroking his content stomach, driver announced the departure.

Soon the route became steep and wavy. The hills had started. At one point the road takes two very steep hairpin turns. Then a popular Hanuman ji’s temple passes on right. It is a small temple under a tree. Driver slowed the bus a bit. So everyone can pay their respects by bowing to this popular deity and throw some coins as offering. If you are in a car and slow down, you can get Prasad too.

I realized that the trees were much closer to the bus window. The road was much narrower, but it was in good condition; may be due to reduced traffic. Earlier when this was the only road in use, it was really bad. There used to be very long traffic jams. Sometimes it has taken me 6-8 hrs to reach Pune, in place of usual four.

As the bus neared Lonavala, it reached the top of the hills. It was raining here. I had kept my elbow and face out of the window to feel the rain and cool breeze. Mountains on the other side of the wide and deep valley were dotted with numerous waterfalls. I got deeply engrossed in watching the scenic panorama. I was discovering real beauty in everything that was around. I was able to absorb each view and find playfulness in nature.

There were clouds below my eye level, at the eye level and above too. At a distance, I spotted a small white cloud that had got entangled in bushy branches of a tree. It seemed to be trying to pull itself away but was finding it difficult. Strong breeze was trying to help it; but it wasn’t easy. Due to pull of the breeze in various directions, cloud was changing shapes. Even in total silence, it was a thrilling moment – a highflying cloud held down by a tree and not being allowed to fly away. It seemed like a simple game young kids might be playing in villages. 

The red bus entered first of numerous tunnels. Tunnel was packed with white fog; that felt as if we were passing through a block of white cotton, which easily rushed inside the bus too. Now the clouds were traveling with me, in the bus. Like a dream sequence, everyone looked hazy…

There is no way I could have had so much fun in an expensive claustrophobic A/C bus.

We all have noticed that due to this covid 19 lockdown, earlier normal life has been totally disrupted. As I was editing this I saw the videos of my fast paced life with loud traffic sounds of buses, autos etc. That was normal then. But as I listen to and feel present ambiance, I feel this is so much more peaceful. Of course a balance has to be achieved between peace and progress.

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