Monday, 2 March 2015

DRIVING IN BENGAL

 
I love travelling: the journey and the destination. I relish that feeling of being in between - that time after leaving one place and before arriving in the next. Knowing there is nothing I can do till I reach my goal, gives me a sense of freedom from the usual worries and anxieties. In February I decided a trip to India was just what I needed, and today’s post recounts one of my recent experiences while travelling.
 DRIVING IN BENGAL
The journey to Kolkata airport, where I was to board a plane back to the UK, will take four and a half hours. This isn’t because where I'm staying with friends is that far away – in fact it 's a mere one hundred and fifty kilometres – but because of the dire state of the roads.
My flight departure time is 08.55, which means arriving at the airport by 06.55 to clear customs and security. This dictates I start my journey by 2 am – just to allow for the unforeseen, which is always a good thing to remember whether in India or Iceland.
When the alarm goes off at 1am, I stagger to the bathroom for a quick cold sluice off - no hot water available - a sure fire way to get the adrenaline flowing. Going outside at ten to two, where the temperature is a comfortable twenty-three degrees as opposed to the daily thirty odd degrees, I spot the booked taxi with the driver asleep on the front seat. I wonder if he’s parked there all night? After rapping for several minutes on the window, he wakes. Ten minutes later, I’ve said goodbye to my dear friends, flop in the back of the taxi with my brain in a stupor, and away we drive.
Speed isn’t a problem; to be honest I don’t remember seeing a speed limit at any point on this journey, or any other I undertook in India. The road is dark – no street lights – with the odd pallid yellow bulb strung outside an individual home, silhouetting shapes of the surrounding lush foliage. We soon reach five miles an hour and stay between five and twenty for the next two and three quarter hours. The reason? Well, the bumps, potholes and ridges that pit the dirt track will crack the axle like a piece of sugar cane being juiced in a grinder if we go any faster. To manoeuvre round, over, and past these obstacles the driver weaves a complicated pattern of avoidance – a skill which saves the car, but slows our forward progress to a crawl. The constant sideways swinging of the car feels like a ride on the teacups at the fair, and precludes any thoughts of napping.
Forty-five minutes later, we navigate on to the main highway where we meet one major hindrance. In my naivety, I’d thought the early drive would work in my favour, as there’d be less traffic. My outward journey had been in the middle of the afternoon, when I’d learnt the true meaning of the phrase ‘traffic congestion’. But I soon discover the sub-continent’s trucking industry is a twenty-four hour business. Drivers live in their trucks - and not just when they’re hauling goodness knows what from A to B. Here trucks are a different species. Often decorated with multi-coloured lights, always overloaded, they lurch from side to side, resembling elephants, and invariably occupy the centre of the road as they lumber along. In places they form a solid cavalcade of behemoths trundling through the night.
Overtaking is common, and as with all driving in India, is accompanied by a honking of horns – which means anything and everything. ‘I’m coming through and you’d better get out of my way.’ ‘Just in case you can’t see me, I’m here.’ ‘Move.’ ‘Watch out.’ Honking accompanies every road action: when coming up behind another vehicle, when approaching another vehicle, when overtaking another vehicle, on spotting a pedestrian, a cyclist, a scooter or motor bike; i.e. a constant discordant audio accompaniment you soon learn to tune out.
I spot a number of breakdowns, and as we speed (using the word loosely here) passed, puzzled drivers shine torches at the dark underbelly of their beasts. I wish them luck – no Green Flag time guarantees out here. My trusty driver overtakes when feasible, and while oblivious to any notion of the Highway Code, isn’t reckless.
Suddenly we hit a dust storm. Not an actual Dorothy in Kansas or Saharan sand storm, but there are so many trucks and the road so dry that the difference is minimal. I see nothing in front, to the side or behind but swirling clouds of brown dust. The driver – not sure what he’s popping into his mouth, but they do the job of keeping him awake – slows to three miles an hour, turns on the bright headlights and indicators to make our presence visible.
Seatbelts appear optional. Not just the wearing of them, but having them installed in a vehicle. Several taxis I took had no seatbelts, and no driver worth his salt would be seen using one. But at this point I fasten mine.
After fifteen minutes we exit the blinding dust and resume our journey through the dark early hours of the morning. Now and then a cyclist, without lights, and sometimes with a cart attached behind the bicycle looms out of the darkness, and we swerve sharply to prevent any Grand Theft Auto style killings.
One particular stretch is potholed so generously that all sense of traffic direction disappears. Vehicles zigzag from one side to the other to avoid the gaping holes, resulting in a free for all in terms of which side of the road is going in which direction. The constant lack of rules is so outrageous to my European sensitivities that all I can do is stare in stunned amusement.
 At last, as the early vestiges of dawn grey the subtropical skyline, we approach the outskirts of Kolkata, and rural driving chaos is replaced by urban driving chaos. I had seen a few traffic lights in some of the cities I visited, but saw drivers paying attention to them on no more than a couple of occasions. The consensus appears to be that whatever the lights indicate, it’s not important enough to warrant taking any notice. This way the traffic flow is never compromised, merely interrupted, as cars who wish to join the flow wait for that one second gap, before nudging their vehicles forward into the moving stream which parts and flows round the new entrant till it merges with the rest. The one saving grace of Indian traffic is the pace it moves at is slow enough that the expected mayhem doesn’t materialize as anticipated.

I know Indian men have a bad reputation in their behavior towards women, but I found both men and women, polite, always helpful and treated me with a genuine warmth. The conditions of absolute poverty in which many exist is hard to comprehend, and I'm sad to leave this fascinating country, but it would take more time than I've got to explore all the places I want to see.
Sooner than expected, we reach my destination. I thank the driver, take one last look at the sky - the sun, bringing with it heat, bright sunshine and another day of hard work for most Indians, will leap above the horizon at any minute - and with my suitcase rolling along behind me, I enter the very different world of middle-class, air-conditioned comfort that is Kolkata airport
Writing Update
Life is often two steps forward and one back, and I’ve found this true in writing as in any other area. Last November several factors combined to make me rethink how I was approaching various aspects of the promotional merry-go-round that self-publishing entails. As a result I took some time away from blogging to evaluate if I was achieving my goals, and if not, what to change and how. Now I’m re-energized - and although still in the dark about various facets of the PR process - my determination to keep writing is as strong as ever. I’ll admit progress on Book Two of the Samsara Trilogy has been slow, and I didn’t manage much writing while in India, but the story is never far from my mind. I really want to get going on it - so re-establishing a daily writing rhythm is urgent.
Revamping the website is on my to do list, and although I’d planned to write a post once a month, this hasn’t materialized. I do miss blogging having learned so much from writing one, and I often find myself thinking of posts I could write - but if time, energy and health are limited, then regretfully, I must prioritize writing the novel.

Today's Haiku
heat builds suffuses
limbs turns brain to thick syrup -
I dream of a/c
(Hotels in India advertise rooms as 'With a/c or non a/c [air conditioning]' Non a/c rooms have a fan.
Useful websites:
Two great sites full of hints and tips on writing, organization, marketing etc., etc.

http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com     http://www.Ingermanson.com
I’d love it if you checked out either of my novels, or popped over to Wattpad and read any of my posted stories ... just click on the links to the right.
Join me on Twitter at: teagankearney@modhaiku 
To all story lovers out there, good reading, and to those of you who write, good writing.
 
 

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Apart from writing, I'm compiling a bucket list of places I'd like to  visit...from Iceland to Hawaii and onwards....
         

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