It was after 11pm, India time, when we finally got through customs and out onto the arrival area of the airport at Trivandrum, Kerala. My travel companion, Vaidehi, had arranged for a taxi to take us to our hotel in the downtown area, and I was relieved. Seeing the many strange men lined up and staring at all of us westerners, looking ragged and tired from our long journey, I would not have known whom to choose or trust.
Our young driver’s name was Gananath, one of the many names of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who removes obstacles and always is worshipped first in Hindu rituals. I considered this an auspicious beginning to our journey in the homeland of yoga, and felt at ease as he loaded our suitcases into the trunk of the classic white Ambassador.
Nevertheless, I had heard about how people drove on the streets in this country, and didn’t know what to expect or how it would affect me. Back at home, I had dealt with enough anxiety being in the passenger seat of other people’s cars from time to time, so I figured this was going to be a good opportunity to practice trust – and focus on chanting, if need be.
As we departed the airport, I was reminded of the fact that this was a British-ruled country for many years, and thus we were on the left side of the road. Being so late at night, I didn’t have to worry much about the driving – we scarcely saw another car in our 15 minute journey to the South Park hotel.
Still, I was surprised that there were so many dogs running loose on the streets, and the driver doesn’t slow down for them at all. There seems to be an understanding that the dogs know to get out of the way just in time. Each time, I’d worry we would hit one, but always missed. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel too nervous. It was as if I had shifted my own gears to align myself with the new culture. But I had a few weeks ahead of me to learn that I had a long way to go to make that adjustment.
New and familiar sights
Even in the dark, I could make out a man in rags along the roadside, seated by a small campfire. The flames revealed enough for me to see matted hair and a long beard. Was he homeless by choice, or circumstance? I couldn’t tell if he was a wandering renunciate or simply someone down and out. I decided on the former, largely because I wanted to see some wandering sadhus on this trip, not to mention that it didn’t make a lot of sense for someone who may be in need of food and shelter to be so far from a city area.
Memories of Mexico sprang to mind as we drove past old, run-down concrete houses, peeling paint, and trash strewn here and there, interspersed with coconut trees and lush vegetation. In fact, it reminded me so much of areas around Guadalajara that I attempted to speak Spanish to our friendly driver, who probably just figured his English vocabulary wasn’t so good! I laughed at myself, realizing my error and keeping the English as clear and simple as possible, as most Keralans seemed to speak some, but limited, amounts of English.
Adjusting to chaos
Gananath was a great introduction to experiencing the streets of India. The following day, as we toured a bit of the largest city in the state of Kerala, I felt that he understood the western
trepidation of Indian drivers, and although I don’t think he changed how he drove, he had an aura of competence and patience around him.
That aura was always in contrast to the chaotic, almost manic flow of traffic. Everyone seemed to be out to pass everyone else, and there were no lines on the road or any rules to speak of, except honk if you’re overtaking (their word for passing) or driving around a blind curve. Indians seem to have a great trust in the whole process, whereas we Americans have to have everything regulated, defined, and orderly.
As we departed for the beach town of Varkala, our next destination, I dared to look ahead to the highway in front of us. Going out on main roads in the daylight was quite a different experience, and this overtaking issue seemed crazy! Buses and trucks passing taxis, passing autorickshaws, passing bicycles, and avoiding people all at the same time made me gasp and clench the seat again and again. I tried to hide it, though, and took some deep breaths. So many times we were passing a bus when another bus was coming right at us! Somehow, everyone makes room for the others and it all works out.
To add to the dilemma, there are no seat belts. I didn’t want to think about what would happen if the driver hit the brakes all of a sudden. Luckily, I didn’t hear about gory Indian highway accidents until much later in my trip. So, rather than continue to watch the road and what the driver was doing, I decided to trust. All this worry did me no good.
The One at the wheel
I looked out the side windows to watch the endless parade of fascinating shops, produce stands, people carrying pots on their heads, children in school uniforms, and women in beautiful saris along the roads. Most of the men had mustaches, and almost all the women wore their hair back in a braid or long ponytail. There were plenty of sights, sounds, and smells to distract me from my fears of the worst. Whenever I focused on looking out the window, I felt relaxed and at ease – except when confronted with fuel exhaust. Otherwise, I felt fine in the hands of the man at the wheel.
Which brought to mind, who was really at the wheel? I mean, was it really the driver? He certainly didn’t have control over what the other cars did. He couldn’t control the external circumstances. And I had much less control of the situation! It was crystal clear that on this trip – and in my life – something much bigger was in the driver’s seat. No matter how much I try to figure it all out, I’m in the hands of the Divine. I can whine and worry about it, or I can sit back, enjoy the scenery, and see what to learn from the experience.
Trust and acceptance
Moving on from Varkala the next day, Vaidehi and I were assigned another driver who spoke only a handful of words in English. Our curious questions about the areas we drove through wouldn’t be satisfied, and we had to place even more confidence in his ability to get us to our destination.
Roads were narrow for the first half of the journey, then onto larger city streets again. Despite the comparative recklessness of the Indian drivers, the pedestrians seemed largely unconcerned about crossing the street. They slowly, gracefully, strode across, sometimes not even looking at the coming cars, appearing to have faith that everyone’s timing worked out. I would have been sprinting across, worriedly glancing back and forth!
This was something distinctive about Indian culture. Although everyone passed everyone else in a great rush, I never saw a driver lose his temper. No one at all seemed bothered when someone passed them, nor when there was a near miss (only once did I see a pedestrian get upset at a close call).
Yet here, in the US, people regularly get furious if someone as much as speeds up next to them, slows down unexpectedly, or does any manner of other things that are mild annoyances. It’s a battle of the egos on the freeway in California, but in India, not a hint of personal reaction. Their trust and acceptance of circumstance was happily contagious, and I relaxed into a comfortable cross-legged position in the back seat.
After having been at Amritapuri, Amma’s ashram, for over a week, I had my initiatory experience of riding in an Indian bus. We were having a special tour of the first orphanage that Amma took under her wing, and about 25 of us westerners piled into an old bus chartered for the 1 1/2 hour journey.
The week before, one of the devotees I met on the flight from Singapore to Trivandrum had taken the bus to Amma’s nearby charitable, state-of-the-art hospital and had come back with the skin removed from the top of her knuckles. On their return from the hospital, she had been holding the bars that went across the open-air windows with one hand, and a piece of metal from a truck traveling in the opposite direction scraped the top of the skin off! Although the heat was quite intense, I opted to stay away from the windows and sit toward the aisle. We returned with no incidents, but I wondered what a regular, unchartered bus ride would be like.
My opportunity to experience that came another week later, when staying at the cultural arts center in Aranmula. I getting low on rupees and needed to make a trip to a bank – into town 20 km outside of our village. I either could pay 4.5 rupees (a little less than 10 cents) to take a bus, or pay over 90 rupees for auto rickshaw. Since I was running out of cash, I didn’t want to splurge for the taxi. I decided that it was time to embark on the adventure of taking a bus by myself; a single, white, western woman.
The staff at Vijnana Kala Vedi (the arts school) were kind enough to write the destination in Malayalam (the local language) on a piece of paper, as well as the name of the town to return to, for showing the fee-taker. I took a seat on the right side of the bus, and settled in for the ride.
Relax – you’re being taken care of
It wasn’t long before an Indian woman boarded and slid in right next to me – hip to hip. No personal space in India! But everyone was so comfortable with being close, and I realized that my western tension was silly. I relaxed and trusted the process. Men, however, would stand rather than sit next to a woman. Everywhere I traveled, there was strict respect for separation of the sexes. I, for one, was grateful for this on the bus.
Arriving safely in Chengannur, I went about my business and then sought out the large bus station for my return trip. About 7 lines of buses, coming and going every couple of minutes, with their destinations usually written in Malayalam – how would I figure out which one to take?
Trust the Driver; somehow, I’ll be taken care of. After asking around if anyone spoke English, I was connected with a kind, middle-aged businessman who was destined for the same bus. He assured me he’d let me know when it came.
10, 20, 30 minutes went by – when would it arrive? I had a music lesson in a half hour! But impatience does no good in India – trust and wait. Finally, the man signaled to me and we scurried over and boarded. So many people looked after me, making sure I got off at the right stop. Yes, Someone else was the Driver of this journey, and I could relax and know that all was in order.
Futile little strategies
Nevertheless, I continued to devise little strategies for what I thought would keep me safer in every vehicular situation. While in a taxi later in my trip, I decided to sit over on the left side, away from the middle of the road, lest a car go astray and hit us.
My false confidence dissipated when we had a near miss with a pole on my side, from attempting to avoid an oncoming car. So much for the left side being a safer bet! Again and again, I was faced with the fact that I couldn’t control this. Trust the Driver. When I considered it, it was vastly better than the idea of driving the car myself on these roads!
Let go of control
Here at home, I understand that my life continues to be guided by some great expert travel engineer. Would I really want to see everything that’s up ahead on the road? The time that my father had heart failure, when my tires blew out on the freeway, or when I passed my licensure exam? Would knowing what was ahead cause me greater anxiety? Having the knowledge, would I attempt to control the situation, thereby possibly bringing about a different outcome? Would that outcome necessarily have been better – if I hadn’t been a little nervous for my exams, would I have been too cavalier and failed the test?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that when I let go of the need to control my destiny and shape my circumstance, I heave a sigh of relief. Peace enters my mind. It’s calming and comforting to trust and let go. When I can do that, I find whatever arises, I’m better able to deal with it. So I sit back, roll down the window, and let the wind blow through my hair. I watch the beggars on the street and the temple elephants parading, and take it all in as life.
Attention on the present
It occurred to me, though, that perhaps gazing at the view is merely an avoidance of my fear – should I instead look ahead and confront what’s there? That sounds like the strong, brave thing to do. Get over that fear! Shouldn’t we look those fears in the eye and transcend them?
But again, our minds are tricky. Focusing solely on the fear distracts us from living. Life continues to pass us by – are we relishing it, participating in it, feeling it, smelling it, or is our life sucked away by the trepidation of what comes next? Fear isn’t usually about the present, but about the future. The present moment keeps sailing by outside the window.
Soon enough, I had the opportunity to truly be in that present moment. The taxi stopped, I got out and took in the surroundings. The smell of dust kicked up from the road, the sounds of crows and vendors on the street, the cow ambling by next to the auto rickshaw, whose driver looked hopefully towards the next passerby. I let go the future, I release the past. Here in the moment is my life. The Divine Driver knows best the next destination.
Copyright 2003, 2008 by Constance L. Habash