Another bus, another road, another pot-holed surface. But this was the last leg and the European Express coach driver had said Ioannina is not far and there were not so many passengers on board. Opposite was a couple, in front were a few more passengers and at the back a group of about ten soldiers in uniform presumably going back to their barracks. Up ahead in the distance was a high range of mountains so it must be before that…an hour at most. Time to get there, find a cheap hotel near the centre, have a shower, get changed and go out to explore.
An hour later we seemed to be getting very close to these mountains and there was not a town in sight.
Another half an hour and we were now climbing the bastard mountains.
I tried to catch the attention of the Greek couple on the other side of the gangway.
“Ioannina…ti ora?” I tapped my wrist where there was no watch but I was by now pretty convinced of my miming abilities.
The Greek guy did a typical Greek thing. He shrugged his shoulders. Greeks do that even if they know the precise answer to a question. Then he did another very Greek thing. He waggled his left hand from side to side in the air, palm downwards. Obviously the answer he was at some point going to give me about when we were supposed to arrive in Ioannina would only be accurate to within about two or three months. In the end, after screwing up his face a little and furrowing his brow quite frighteningly, he spoke.
“Oh no!! FIVE O’CLOCK??!!” I turned to Deborah, “he says we don’t get there till five.”
“Presumably today?” She was feeling the same as me. I turned to the Greek again, “simera?” He started his shrugging, waggling, frowning routine again and eventually said, “ne.”
“Today, yes! Well thank Apollo’s bum for that!”
I sank back in my seat. Oh well, only four more hours. In four hours though you can drive a very long way, if you are driving fast. Or a very short way, if you are driving slowly. And we were driving slowly. Slowly up a narrow road into the mountains. The bus was quite comfy though and we had space for our cases and our legs which was bliss compared to the European Express experience.
We were going a bit faster now, still uphill. I noticed in a net bag on the back of the seat in front of me there were some brown paper bags.
“What do you think these are for?”
“They look like the sick bags you get on the plane sometimes”
“When it gets turbulent they hand them out to people in case they need to throw up.”
“And what do we need them for? I mean I know we are going up this mountain but he’s not going to take off at the top is he?”
Looking out the window we were getting pretty high up. And the road was getting a bit narrower, the s-bends a bit sharper. I now noticed for the first time that they also didn’t have those little fences at the side of the road like they do in Austria, sort of crash barrier things. This road was just open to the sky…and the driver was going faster. We reached the top of the ridge and started going down again. We were now passing a few road signs with various speed limits on them but nowhere did it say on them “breakneck” for the speed. But that would have been a fair description of our velocity.
Faint stirrings of a feeling of slight panic made me look over the seat to the driver in the front.
Well, he wasn’t slumped unconscious over the steering wheel...in fact he was in conversation with the passengers in the seat behind him to his right – that’s good. But he was turning round all the time to look at them as he spoke – that’s bad.
We were now…well, I suppose I have to say the word…hurtling down towards a bend which looked so sharp that the road seemed just to end in mid air. As we came to it a lorry lumbered around the corner coming up. The driver was sharing a joke with the passengers. I found myself pushing with both feet on imaginary brakes. Deborah was doing the same. We were gripping the sides of our seats tightly both trying to spit in the eye of gravity, defy the centrifugal force and somehow magically hold the bus on the road. Whatever mechanisms in the universe we managed to influence, if any, it must have worked as the next moment we were somehow round the corner. There was a groan from the back. I looked round to see the whites of the soldiers’ eyes staring to the front as if they had just looked death in the face – which, on reflection, perhaps they had.
More bends ahead. We were fortunate that we were sitting in the middle seats and so we weren’t being tossed from side to side as much as the lads in the back. One or two of them looked quite pale. We belted towards another near death experience and skidded impossibly around the corner…tyres squealing, brakes screeching. The soldiers were getting thrown right and left and up and down and now a couple of them reached for the brown paper bags. Jesus! They are sick bags…on a bus!! And they at the back are soldiers !!
There was now a kind of silence on the bus…well, I say silence, there was the horrible bubbly choking coughing noise of most of the troops at the back puking up their breakfasts and probably the linings of their stomachs too and then there was the noise of the driver and his two mates still chattering away and laughing at the tops of their voices…and indeed there was also the rather disturbing noise of the bus itself shrieking and groaning, sounding as if at any momnet it would simply shatter into a thousand screws, rivets and nails…but otherwise there was a kind of silence…a sort of of held-in-breath…almost holy. Holy, yes, that’s right. We had been for at least an hour now just a burst tyre or a loose bolt away from shooting off the side of the road and into the aether to fall to certain death on the rocky crags miles below. We were in the hands of whatever gods stalked these desolate mountain heights.
And these gods, if they did exist, would have made a brilliant squad of goalkeepers or slip fielders. They saved us a good few more times from flying over the edge and into the abyss.
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