Local Bus Only, Sir

A Journey Into the Indian Himalaya

If you prefer to listen to the text, you can click play on the recording. Feel free to read along.

The gods, so it is said, would not journey by bus in India. They would also not journey by train, plane or hired jeep. Their being able to traverse the country with a step or two, while leaving footprints, seas and rivers everywhere, means that such modes of transport are for the mere mortals. I wanted to go from MacLeod Ganj to Reckong Peo. The man at the counter explained to me that the only way to get there was by local bus. For this bus I would have to get my own ticket which did not make him happy because he could not commission me for it. So he tried the second-best thing: he attempted to gently discourage me.

Tourist office owner (doubtful): So you want to go Reckong Peo, sir?

Me: Yes.

Owner (cautious): This is a long drive, sir. Twenty-seven hours.

Me: Yes.

Owner (triumphant): It is local bus only, sir.

Me: Yes.

Owner (incredulous): Twenty-seven hours.

Me: Yes.

Owner (resigned): You want to go?

Me: Yes.

Owner: You have to get ticket downside, Lower Dharamsala.

This suited me well. It meant I could go down to Lower Dharamsala one hour before the bus left and get a ticket. It made the whole thing very spontaneous, which was good. Most of the people I had befriended were ending their journeys at that time and I was ready to leave, too.

Indian busses are strange breeds. They come in many shapes, sizes and versions, different stages of decay the connoisseur might call it – tourist office employees and owners will always try to get you on a super deluxe version, which occasionally means that it is rundown, about to fall apart but has a freezing cold air conditioning that cannot be turned off because the switches are all broken. Absolute luxury. The deluxe version cannot really be distinguished from the regular version, except by the price of its ticket. Some busses even offer the supreme comfort of your own private sleeping quarters. They consist of a curtained off box which is indeed large enough to sleep two people. Pure bliss, the travel-stained India traveler will say, until the bus reaches a bumpier stretch of the road and one notices the lack of hand-holds in the compartment box. Tumble drier or perhaps Deluxe Tumble Drier would be a more fitting moniker in such situations. Their bones thoroughly rattled the overnight traveler arrives as if they had chosen to travel by torture chamber.

A local bus is, by comparison, actually quite comfortable. You strap you bags to the roof or squeeze them underneath your seat. There are no luggage wallahs hassling you for fifty rupees for the privilege of having your luggage travel with you. Sitting next to the door you might be required to slam it shut after every stop, signaling the driver by the metal slam that it is safe to proceed. Being a local bus it will get very full, of course, but the windows can be opened or closed at your own discretion and there is no freezing air conditioning and the driver is usually considerate enough (or too poor) to not have installed bass-thumping subwoofers.

The best thing, though, instead of being sardine-stuffed into a bus filled with tourist who are just as bewildered as you, you get to meet interesting or at least odd people. Regular people. A shepherd lady in colourful clothes I would later learn to associate with Kinnaur greeted me in a delightfully throaty voice and asked where I was going. Reckong Peo. My home, she said. She was one of the many shepherds who spent most of the winter in warmer climes, shepherding on the hills of Western Himachal Pradesh. At least that was how she had started out. Now she spent almost all year near Dharamsala, only returning for festivals and family occasions. Farewell, brother. Her goodbye still rings in my ears. It had dignity and simplicity.

But before anything at all happened the bus broke down ten meters outside of the bus stop. Turns out it was a good place to break down, because the driver somehow got it to the garage and it was swiftly repaired. Indians are actually exceedingly good at impromptu repairs. Because things always break down, the cynic might say, and yes that is part of the reason, but they also love to tinker with everything, trying to improve it or making it at least more Indian in the process. You can find small repairmen’s huts in almost every village and dotted along the roads. Sometimes they have the required parts and sometimes they improvise – jugaad is the colloquial word for this – an improvisation bypassing limitations of law, logistics and money.

We drove along small roads and I could watch houses with small gardens pass by. People were working on small vegetable patches or tending flowers. Quiet suburban areas, very green, that seemed almost Mediterranean – an odd sight on the foothills of the Himalayas. When we left the villages I was reminded that India’s nature can be, despite all the pollution of the plains, absolutely stunning. We climbed up hills covered by pine forests, overlooked cliffs and ravines of some schist-y, fragile rock, dipped down into pleasantly cool forested valleys. Then it was back to the frenzy of typical Indian ant-hill busy villages. Shops and narrow streets that spilled people and vehicles. Faded colours and rusty signs proclaiming the world best something. Paan chewing, paunchy men and young boys and fragile ladies carrying trays with roasted nuts, sliced fruit, packaged juice. Cacophonous melodies of horns and voices.

Along the way I encountered a young girl worshipping Marie Curie as a heroine of female scientists, a trio of backpackers stranded on a bus station surrounded by a spasmodically curious group of young Indian men, ate dinner late at night in a dhaba with cement walls perched on a hill and found out that when night falls, on a local bus full to the brim, people huddle close to sleep, with strange heads resting on my shoulders and even my shoes.

At some point I entered the realm of sleep myself – only to wake up a few short hours later, back and legs cramped in pain, face pressed against the windshield. With bleary eyes I stared down a sheer abyss starting two inches from the wheels of the bus…I had arrived in the Himalayas proper.

Some unfinished thoughts about change and tradition



I find myself wondering about vanishing traditions and disappearing cultures every so often…one of my larger scale projects, Terranigma, deals with exactly this. But one does not have to go very far to see old and used to things disappearing in favour of new, shiny, glossy and comfortless elements. I’m simply wondering about how unwilling we often are to integrate new traditions into established worldviews…on a microscopic as well as a macroscopic scale.

Tradition, time honoured traditions have something solid, something absolutely not worrisome. They have stood the test of time, they aren’t shakey…and we live in a time when pretty much everything seems to be on very shakey ground. Tradition appeals to the security seeker and if we speak about vanishing traditions or willfully set out to change traditions, we upset this sense of security.

Suddenly the I, lonely naked I becomes concerned about its own vulnerability. No security, no fallback plans? Burn those heretics of the new and change-y!

A muddled sense of nostalgia seems so much better. The old is not yet gone, we feel it slipping, but it’s still there if we reach out far enough…

But we need to integrate new elements, pretty much constantly. As a society and as individuals. I do believe that as longs as we look with nostalgia and sadness at everything that disappears and look for blame and cause, reason and rescue, we are not inside of time, but very much outside of it. Some elements of traditions disappear, some travel along, some get reintegrated and used in different forms and combinations.

We are constantly evolving, constantly engaged with both our past and future. This is unavoidable as long as we live and breathe and it is not at all dramatic. We all do it, constantly. To look for purity or one fixed point where everything was perfect is to try to hammer a nail into a rapidly spinning globe.

Ultimately, change is just time made visible and while each of us has a very personal point where our time ends, change and newly formed elements and traditions will be ongoing. Lonely, naked I does not have to wear old clothes for fear of standing naked in the future.

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner or the Illusions of Morality


Hate the sin but love the sinner. This is one of the Christian morals that I can attempt to understand. It is certainly better to despise an act and not a person, although in its more extreme form this view will lead to an utterly inflexible worldview where every act is considered separate from the circumstance necessitating it and where there is a hierarchy of sinful acts, each considered more atrocious than the one before and each deserving of a progressively prohibitive punishment.

In my view an act is not separate from the person acting. Cannot be. We’re not automatons that certain acts happen to according to a divine scale of retribution but we decide because of various interdependent motives and we can change our motives and our actions to better adapt to a situation and improve the chances of a positive outcome. We’re born improvisers. We’re born spontaneous and every mental construct is a burden to the natural expression of mind and spirit (yet, quite paradoxically, rather often the natural expression of the mind is the construction of such burdensome mental ballast out of spontaneous moments).

We’re variables, not constants. In fact, we’re a chain of variables so complex and diverse that the concept of “we” and “I” are probably no more than temporary illusions.

The Christian belief is that a sin creates an indelible tear in a permanent moral space. That is why it is so frightening. It is an intrusion of a demonic entity into otherwise pure space. Original sin changed the world utterly from a paradise into the occasionally hellish limbo that we find ourselves in. Yet we have a chance to return to it, to this childlike world of wonder and speaking animals. I like the second part from a purely psychological view. We all yearn to a certain degree to return to childhood and safety, so why not dream of Eden?

Yet safety and the childhood dreams are all illusion and if taken as literally real become prisons of thought. The pain and the moral anguish that we suffer as we grow older is equally an illusion. It is a drama of the senses and the intellect that has very little, if anything, to do with our actual experience.

Of course it is frightening for a devout Christian to consider that sin is not real and that an act, kind or awful, really makes very little impression on the universe. It may make a lot of impression on another person, equally inhibited in their eternity of morals or entirely free of them, but the universe really couldn’t care less. Whatever you do, it will just continue being the universe and that is being naturally spontaneous in infinite variations.

In the mind of some people declaring sin unreal equals declaring salvation unreal. Declaring the most trivial aspect of god unreal equals declaring god’s most essential aspect unreal for a mind trained in literal rigidity or for a person who has quite a lot invested in the hope of personal salvation by an ultimately benevolent deity.  

Of course most of us fall right in the middle. Between childlike faith and existential reason. We fluctuate and that is a very good state to be in.

Conversations with a Nomad


I am a nomad. It’s a perfectly normal thing for me to change places every other day. Pack my bags and go. I spend the summer touring for work and visits and, even though I suffer from a certain fatigue after a while of working unpredictable hours, I enjoy it a lot.

For the past years I needed to balance this with friends and family. I have very close bonds to my friends and my family, so the time I spend with them is (as perceived by me) rather intense and important. Because I know I will be going away again.

I have very rarely entertained serious thoughts of settling down. In my mind and heart I am very settled down. I have a clear idea of where I want my life to head and I am working on it. I don’t think there is a better idea of home than this. That’s why I am a nomad.

Now while I am settling down in the most impermanent of fashions – looking for a job to tide me over the winter months – I still feel this to be an unnatural strain. Or rather, I cannot quite understand the priorities and principles of settled people. My backpack is still packed after six weeks at home.

When I am travelling I realize how large and how interesting the world is. You don’t even need to travel to understand this. Walk for ten minutes and it has changed. Turn around and talk to someone else and it has changed.

The most important topic of conversation for a nomad is this: Who are you and where are you going?

Now the answer to this is not necessarily, I’m Dave and I’m going to get some beer.

What I am asking is, In your head and heart, who are you at this moment and what is your goal, be that spiritual, physical, emotional or financial?

You see, I assume that these things change, after all you are human not static. That’s why I want to know them. They are, truthfully, the only questions that interest me. If you are someone interesting and if you’re going to a nice place, I might come along. Or I might invite you to come along because I am heading to a similar place.

I don’t want to talk to show off how clever or funny I am. I’m not interested in a contract or an agreement or a plan for my future. I have all these things, as much as anyone can have them.

I’m not interested in hearing how hard life is for you or what you dislike. This does not turn you into a deeper person for me. If you are sad, show me the depth of your sadness and if you are happy I want to see the depth of your joy. I want to see you be a human being.

I think there’s a secret world behind even the most ordinary things – one of strong emotions, the imagination, of occasional madness and passion – but this world or these worlds, for there are many, only work when contrasted, merged or shared with each other. If the worlds are as different as possible to your own, it becomes much more intriguing and rewarding to share and so I like to move around and talk to people from walks of life and from backgrounds that are utterly removed from my own. This is much easier if I am a nomad.

Diversity and contradiction keeps my mind alive and my interest in everything intact.

So…who are you and where are you going?



Welcome to our mysterious home – I would like to introduce all of you to a project of mine. This is an introduction, but also an attempt to raise funds, so if you are allergic to such requests, stop reading right now 😉

Terranigma (terra = earth, enigma = riddle, terranigma – the earth as an eternal riddle) is a project that I conceived of in 2013, inspired by a preceding visit to the Himalaya region of Spiti in Northwestern India and by conversations and work with fellow travellers, photographers and filmmakers. My goal is to create a platform to preserve and document some of the most remote, strange and culturally valuable places and traditions on our planet through photography and writing.

After seeing ancient monasteries and thousand year old traditions in the valleys of the High Himalaya I came to realize that much of this wealth might be – and probably will be gone from the face of the earth forever in five to ten years time.

The world changes at a breakneck pace. Change, as a matter of fact, is the only thing that is constant in our existence. I want to record and show the world in the way I percieve it while I am travelling: as a deeply fascinating, fragile place full of mysteries and riddles, full of life, of traditions and also of change.

Do you consider such a project worthwhile? If you do, I am asking you to seriously consider supporting it. I aim to create a platform for various photographers and independent documentary filmmakers to collect knowledge of disappearing things. This must – out of necessity – start with my own photography.

This is what I am asking you: If you think it worthwhile, go to my website (http://www.sebastianbuchner.weebly.com/terranigma.html) and have a look at the PDF file. I am offering all of these images for sale in various formats, from very large to very small, from expensive to really cheap.

All money raised this way goes directly into funding further travels and to help create an online platform for photography, documentary film and independent cultural or anthropological reporting. I don’t expect this will be easy or that anything at all will happen without a serious amount of work – I am thankful for anyone who takes enough time to look at it and perhaps is willing to share it as well.

Thank you,
Sebastian Buchner.

How to Start a Journey


I love the view from a plane. Details disappear, faces, bodies, houses, villages – making way for the features of the land: rivers, forests, fields, mountains, clouds. The world becomes both smaller and larger and I become very quiet.

  This is when I realize that I am starting something new. The world, my world, with its clear details and inimitable instances becomes one of many similar worlds. I learn what – in my life – is similar to hundred other lives, when I watch the landscape and its repetitions. And I learn what – in my life – is unique.

  The distance takes away all the needless clutter of my life, leaving the few essentials – of love, of friendship, of trust – burning in me.

  This is when I realize that I can leave for a long time. The world seems open, an endless patterned thing of repetitions and uniqueness. I feel some fear, but it is refreshing. This merely wakes me up.

  When I get back down, all those many dreams of leaving and of travelling, they will become solid instances of life. The world is large indeed and just the right kind of the same everywhere.