Driving through India

Driving under challenging conditions in India, surviving an accident, and going through some kind of transformation.

– A crash course in common sense –

When we reached India in the fall of 1973, we had been on the road for about half a year. First, we had left Greece reluctantly behind – this place with its sheer overwhelming loveliness that already offered everything we had ever dreamed of and still left us with an inexplicable burning feeling of being unfulfilled. It had been almost painful to leave, and we did not fully understand why we had to. To find so soon what we were looking for seemed implausible, in a mysterious way almost disappointing; it just didn’t fit into our plan of searching for the distant fabulous luck. It took nearly a lifetime of further investigation to understand this deep-rooted experience of incompleteness and dissatisfaction that the Buddhists call “dukkha” and that comes from craving and clinging to concepts and is the source of suffering.

We had been through Turkey with its last remembrance of Europe. We had survived our first really scary adventures and had tasted the danger and seriousness of traveling for the first time.

We had been in Iran, Parvin’s home: An extremely exciting exploration for me, and – as she really didn’t know most of her home country yet – a revelation for Parvin as well. To travel our style made all the difference. As Marcel Proust put it: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.‘

Afghanistan had been the unquestionable entry into Asia, challenging our willingness to really be open to so much intense unfamiliarity.

Like Alexander the Great, we entered India on the spectacular and famed Kaiber Pass where you begin to drop down in endless dizzying turns from the Hindukosh into the sweltering plains of India. After the pass, you almost accidentally find out that they suddenly drive on the left side of the road. Of course, at first it is Pakistan you drive through for a couple of days, but Pakistan and India are indistinguishable for a newcomer. One reason for their tragic conflicts with each other (that haven’t diminished much after half a century and only escalated into nuclear-weapon dimensions now) lies in the historic artificialness of their separation.

After seeing the two separate parallel roads winding up to the pass: one for camel caravans, one for “lorries” (trucks) – cars hardly existed – the inevitable, colorful, and time-consuming customs formalities did not surprise us anymore. Scary looking men in dirty kaftans and with turbans on their heads swarmed all over the place. Almost every one had belts with cartridges hung over his shoulder and carried at least one rifle (in those days it wasn’t so much Kalashnikovs but very primitive antique looking weapons). All the guns and mysterious tension around Kaiber Pass made us very uneasy.

In Pakistan, we finally relieved ourselves of the big shotgun we had bought in Turkey. I had always been suspicious about its dubious value and found the presence of this thing disturbing. There had been at least one occasion when I almost used the gun in apparent self-defense that taught me all I still needed to know about the diabolic ambivalence of bearing arms, about the real protection it can provide but also about the danger of self-deception and misjudgment of critical situations just because of having a gun. It felt like a bad joke when we could easily sell it for twice what we paid for because these gun-crazy people there were convinced that what a German had to sell must be of fabulous quality (which I’m sure it wasn’t).

I remember that, passing through Lahore one steamy afternoon, we woke up to the irrevocable realization that “practicing time” for Asia was definitely over and that this was really it now. The temperature, soaring in the 100s, and the air thick with moisture and pollution, we faced a chaos on the streets that surpassed everything we’d ever seen. Not only cars and trucks were moving, everything, wherever you looked, seemed alive and moving. It was a boiling soup of animals and people. We carefully tried to move with the flow, scared and fascinated by our lack of control. People, wherever you looked. People, carrying huge baskets and chests, dragging things, like ants, pushing carts; occasional cars, loaded with people, not only inside but also in the trunk, on the roof, and on the hood; ox-carts, loaded with even more people. Cows, standing in the midst of all this chaos, undisturbed, munching on rotten garbage and ruminating. Un-muffled trucks, crawling along at walking speed, fumigating everything with black-blue exhaust. A constant useless blare of horns. Suddenly a herd of animals, held together by sheer panic. And again people, people, rubbing along the sides of our car, people who never get out of your way, unless you touch them and push them aside with your bumper, their faces flashing heart-breaking resigned expressions of suffering. All this painfully slow, viscous, like a movie in slow motion. Directly in front of us we saw how the wooden axle of an ox-cart got caught in a truck wheel; the whole cart got lifted up and turned over, people falling like apples, the oxen run over and crushed by the truck, all excruciatingly slow. The truck never stopped, nothing really changed, the crowds moved on as if nothing had happened. We barely avoided the fallen people and were swept on too at the ghostly speed of 2 mph. There was no release, no outburst of aggression, no yelling or shouting in the deafening noise, just stoic, tenacious chaotic flow.

We’d come a long way to India and driving all the way was probably the best preparation, but driving through India in your own beaten up camper van also turned out to be maybe the most challenging way to see this continent. Driving through cities and populated areas was already a nightmare, but outside, on the highways, it was not any better.

The typical Indian highway was a normal two-lane road, paved just wide enough for two cars to pass each other, and, parallel on both sides, a wide margin of barren dirt. It would be easy to just drive on your side (which is by the way left) and mind your own business – like everybody else in the rest of the world, you’d think as a greenhorn from Germany. Not so in India! They drive in the middle of the road; and don’t you think they’ll make room for you! At first you are just shocked that trucks (there are only trucks), driving in the opposite direction, don’t move over from the middle to their side when you approach each other. There is not enough room on your own lane, so you have to leave the pavement at the last moment and drive in the mud to avoid a head-on collision, later struggling to get back on the road again. It scares you to death, it doesn’t make the slightest sense to a poor logic-oriented Northern European. It was a very intense and dangerous learning process.

In my disbelief, I even tried to actually stop on my side of the road when a truck came, just in order to see if he would at least then give way and retreat to his side. I was speechless with frustration: they stopped too, right in the middle, so close in front of me, they almost touched my bumper. The drivers stared at me, unflinching under their huge turbans, their faces hidden behind their enormous beards. I pointed to their lane and probably made a face like a yelping puppy. No response! I didn’t know enough about the magic of patience yet, nor did I have enough sense to see through the whole spiel. In the end I always gave up, and I actually had to back up, just in order to even be able to surrender and go off into the dirt again.

Every single encounter with oncoming traffic was a serious problem, and I think there was not one truck that ever let us pass; we actually got stuck in the mud several times. What saved me a little from continuously taking it too personally and losing my mind was to see that they performed this idiotic behavior among themselves too.

And we later learned the story behind it: The drivers in India belong to the Siek religion, the energetic ethnic class of the Northwest. They are well-known for their highly traditional and militant attitude. For them, to give in, in certain ritualized confrontations, is a deadly serious matter of tarnished honor; and meeting another driver on the road is one of those duel-situations. Each encounter has only a winner and a loser. When we saw these duels from the distance sometimes, we knew how serious these guys were. Each time they aimed for a head-on collision until one finally gave in at the very last moment and left the road, sliding and swaying and almost tipping over. And more than once did we see the horrible leftovers of cases when it was too late.

It’s so amazing how life seems to deal us special conditions every now and then to learn from. Most of the time we really see this only later when we have either passed the test or failed. It was indeed a learning challenge to objectively see these absurd Indian driving habits and realize, in time, what a fantastic luring trap it really was. For a young (27) ignorant male in his testosterone-saturated prime, who just grew up with excessively aggressive driving habits himself in Germany, these situations seemed nearly inescapably provoking. For me it took an extra drastic hint to finally understand the lesson: Only a week or so into India we did have the “classic” accident and survived it:

One early morning, being blinded by the sun, I just saw the oncoming truck a second too late and couldn’t completely avoid it anymore. To survive the crash itself was a miracle! Our front right side looked like scrunched paper, the right door was shut and locked forever, the right front wheel was damaged, but nothing vital was broken, and we were ok. But there was not much time to let the shock sink in. Our first inspection of the damage lasted only a few seconds when we saw how maybe 50 people climbed from the stopped truck and started picking up stones. It took us another few seconds to fully understand the situation, and when we finally jumped back into our car and I floored it, the first rocks were already hitting us.

On that day I got the message. And, interestingly enough, after some 30 years now, I think I can say that it changed my driving style forever. The car ran all right, so we just left it like that. Later in Malaysia when it really looked like a battered rusted bucket we poured silver paint over the whole van.

Driving through India was certainly a less than ideal way to begin to love this country. But that’s what we have to go through when we learn how to travel, I think. At first we bring too much ballast, too much self, and we experience ourselves in the new situation, without really seeing the new land. To love India is like loving a thunderstorm – it overwhelms you to such an extent that you are busier catching your breath than wondering whether you like it or not. But we kept going. In a mysterious way we believed we had no other choice. And today I see how our stubbornness to push on was only partially the reason for our suffering but also the reason to be able to learn from the effects.

I remember that our new horn burnt out from overuse only two weeks into India. (We had installed it on the first day past the border after they had stolen the original one in Bulgaria – some 3000 miles ago – and we had hardly missed it in the meantime.)

We found it more and more difficult to cope with the continuous stress. A certain technique to locate places for the night – developed over time as a basic traveling skill – turned out to be pretty useless in India, and it was often quite impossible to find some privacy, at least for the night. There are always people watching you, staring at you. What a lesson again, to be the one yourself, for a change, who is stared at, continuously, without respect.

Wherever we stopped there was immediately a wall of people around us. Not that they were clearly aggressive, actually quite the opposite. They didn’t do anything, they just watched and exchanged comments about us and giggled. They looked at us like we look at an Orangutan in a zoo. There was no interaction, no exchange of glances; they watched us like a thing. When you looked back and tried to make eye contact, they didn’t even notice. It drove you nuts! Of course, we tried to ignore them, but how can you ignore a crowd of 50 people around you all the time? When we tried to hide inside the van we were quickly cooked alive in that heat, and it wasn’t really a relief because we heard them scratching outside and poking and peeking through every hole and climbing on the car, trying to get a look at us. There were times when we just exploded and yelled at them and threw rocks at them. That was the worst: These people never seemed to respond to aggression the way we were used to. When we lose our temper we pretty much expect the other to get angry too, and the whole outburst can somehow be a relief. There, they just retreated a little, not protesting, the one who got hit maybe went into the background for a while, the others quickly came back, their expressions had not changed a bit – like cows. There was simply no way to escape their presence. Of course, we also tried to make fun with them, which was in fact very easy, but how long can you be funny and nice and friendly when your ego is running in circles, trying to be appreciated?

Buying food was an adventure by itself. We had soon found out that Parvin could mostly get away with pretending being Indian when she put on a sari. So when we needed to go to a market to buy food, Parvin would dress up before town, I would quickly drop her off somewhere, and park at another place. She could do her shopping fairly undisturbed, and to find me later was no problem, as she only had to look for a huge crowd somewhere and elbow through it to get home.

A few times, in slightly less densely populated areas, we drove off into the jungle and quickly ripped off branches, trying to camouflage the car before it was discovered. But usually, an hour later, when I looked up from my dinner, I saw 6 faces already pressing their noses flat on the window and watching me with wetted mouths, counting my bites.

Occasionally we saw road-building Indian style: Hardly any machines at work but thousands of barefooted people. They smashed rocks into gravel with little hammers and carried this gravel in baskets to the road; the asphalt was poured with buckets and flattened with boards. A sickening sight: no powerful machine noise, no laughter, just quiet, patient, unspectacular suffering.

One day we saw a dead human body on the road – one leg completely torn off – a woman squatting nearby in the shade, motionless, staring at us.

When we came to Benares (Varanasi) our tolerance for stress slowly reached its limit. It was not only the continuous lack of privacy and the exposure to so much suffering and misery, it was the gradual realization that all that what we saw there, day in day out, was essentially quite normal, that it was much more typical for how man lived on this world than what we had known so far, especially compared to where I grew up. Regarded from a statistical point of view, this was really how man lived on average, not the way I knew it. (And India had only 600 million in 1973). How incredibly privileged was my luxurious ignorance! The term mankind got a completely different meaning for me in those months in India. It was very sobering to have to admit my inability to at least endure just the sight of this, let alone to feel real compassion. I felt deeply humbled by my terrible incompetence and ignorance. Even though it had initially felt like entering into some kind of nightmare, like seeing an unreal world, when we came to India, it slowly dawned on me that I was instead finally just waking up from a sweet dream to reality.

In Benares the dead bodies were floating on the Ganges, bloated, birds picking on them. And they were burning on the pyres, and the stench slowly penetrated into my soul. – Why did we come here? I didn’t want to know all this! Or did I?

Another dog ran into our car – to this day I remember the sound of its breaking bones – it was flung into a crowd of people, and they toppled like bowling pins; and I laughed till I cried, and I could not stop crying. We thought we couldn’t take this anymore.

Nepal was the relief we longed for. We had emerged from the jungle heat of the lowlands into this pearl of a country up in the mountains. But we had hardly tasted the first breaths of mountain air when we suddenly found the road blocked by a series of landslides that had partially covered and destroyed the road for several miles. There were only two roads into Nepal, and the other one was far away. To our surprise it was suddenly possible to simply stay there for a while and be undisturbed and safe. Somehow this forced interruption in our continuous flight was the therapeutic relief we needed so badly. After a few days we were delighted to see several other foreign travelers arrive at this roadblock. All together 5 colorful beaten up vehicles with a bunch of well seasoned adventurers inside. We all suffered from severe psychological exhaustion and licked our wounds together. There was an old little bulldozer working on the road, but we could see it would take forever to make it passable again. So after we all had somewhat recovered our senses and become the old entrepreneurs again, we came up with the idea to blaze our own passage through the landslides. All together we had the spirit, manpower and muscle, and lots of tools to push and pull and dig. It took us a couple of days, but we actually made it. We all broke a few things and repaired it (one guy from Switzerland actually had a complete welding equipment with him). I broke a spring, one ripped open his gas tank, one car actually tipped over; we fixed it all and gained the clear road on the other side and traveled on.

Nepal was a miracle: Soothing, healing, incredibly inspiring, and breathtakingly beautiful. The people there are cheerful like flowers on a mountain meadow. Their Buddhist religion left a mark on me that never left me and changed my life in ways I could have never imagined. We trekked into the Himalayas for many weeks. We climbed up to 19000 feet, and within the alpine grandeur we found the “other form of exhaustion”. And, maybe, on one of those summits, we felt the first sparks of understanding. We may have seen it on each other’s faces when there was a strange new smile, soft and deep, not victorious, not defeated, but peaceful.

     Hiking up to the base camp of Mt.Everest

When we returned from Nepal to India, we were different, matured, not children anymore. Past Calcutta we traveled down the East Coast. Driving was a necessary task we just put behind us, seriously, mindfully, and alert. And we suddenly saw the beauty of India. We saw the graceful posture of the women, carrying their water jars from the river in the morning, the morning mist, caressing the mountain slopes, the water buffalo, wading through the rice fields, leaving ripples on the water, perfect circles, expanding and fading without trace. We could sit on the beach and listen to the hoarse whisper of the palm trees. We watched the fishermen with their sewn-together boats in the surf. We bought fish from them, so cheap that we didn’t have the little coins to pay for it, and they didn’t have enough to give us change for something like a dollar. He took the dollar and promised to bring the change later and left his loincloth as security, which was literally all he owned. We laughed and never expected him to actually return. And when he did come back and bring the change we were so ashamed and moved that we didn’t know what to do; and I’m sure he never knew what a lesson he taught us. Suddenly we could sit in the crowds and forget about ourselves and see the people, really see them, see how they were not at all different from us.




In Madras we looked for a ship to carry our good old van and us across the ocean to Malaysia. And on Christmas Eve, in the harbor, we drove onto a huge net. They had used it before to unload tons of bags of onions. And I stayed in the vehicle while they lifted it up and dropped it on deck of a beautiful white ship.  It was still an Indian ship, and besides cargo they had thousands of passengers on board, and our nerves were tested over and over again. They stopped two times in the middle of the ocean and dropped dead bodies over board.

India left its mark on both of us. It not only changed my driving habits, in various ways it changed my whole idea about traveling. I probably came with the attitude: “here I am, what do you have to offer me?” When I left I felt humbled and ashamed about my ignorance and arrogance. However, remembering India of 1973, I also see us not giving up but giving in and continuing on “the path”.

 * * *

 For related stories click: A day in a fairy tale or A gun story or The queen of Afghanistan or You can’t change the world

Klaus   written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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