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From within the irrational fog of a postbreakup rut, I resolved that the optimum remedy for my mid-30s crisis would be to fly to India, buy a secondhand model of the world’s cheapest car, and spend three months in solitude, driving it more than 6,000 miles around the country.
That was five years ago, and in retrospect, a heinously expensive pair of Christian Louboutin pumps might have served the same purpose. But at the time, I was convinced the only way to reclaim my mojo would be by motoring through India’s romanticized, magical landscape. I imagined speeding among shining paddy fields at sunset, sending flocks of birds flapping into the air as I sliced through rocky desert topography, waving back at happy locals on the roadside, whose smiles would reaffirm my revitalized existence.
It turned out, however, that there were some hard realities about driving in India that I failed to properly register until the moment I put the keys into the ignition of my newly purchased canary yellow Tata Nano: These intriguing, exotic roads were also unequivocally bonkers and unarguably deadly, claiming up to 110,000 lives each year.
Within minutes of leaving Mumbai at the start of the journey, I was in the middle of merciless, impenetrable traffic. I learned the horrors of being sandwiched by doddering, backfiring trucks, the blinding terror of oncoming full-beam headlights on perma-glare, the hungry jaws of bottomless potholes, impotence in the face of advancing herds of livestock, and permanent ear damage incurred by gazillion-decibel horns.
My learning curve resembled a Six Flags vertical corkscrew. I had to adapt fast or risk becoming roadkill. And it turned out, as terrifying as they were, India’s roads were in fact excellent teachers, though their method was all about learning the hard way.
First on the faculty agenda was learning to let go. There were no hard and fast motoring laws, just a system of heuristic rules of thumb. The usual signifiers — road markings, traffic lights, lane divisions — were for the most part ignored and overwritten according to the needs of the drivers. I came to accept this only through a deranged process of shedding my rule-breaking inhibitions. Once I mastered the knack of this anarchic style of driving (and of blasting my horn like it was going out of fashion), my confidence grew and I found I could weave, swerve, and overtake with the best of them.
This led to lesson No. 2: People are more alike than they are different. In India, the road is the second-biggest equalizer (I didn’t dare linger too long on the prospect of death as the first), and inside my little yellow avatar, my gender, age, and the color of my skin made no difference to other road users, who treated the Nano with the same (dis)respect afforded every other vehicle. As such, I was able to muck in at frontlines on railway crossings, in city gridlocks, and on blind mountain curves, immersing myself in the volatile bedlam of Indian traffic in the guise of a regular player, temporarily relieved of my status as a foreigner.
I also learned tomes about patience. Dealing with animals, having to share the road with other species for the first time in my life, I quickly cultivated the art of of shepherding livestock across highway crossings, of shooing monkeys from gas station toilets, and racing camels at stoplights; I discovered that elephants have runny noses and make proficient car burglars and that dogs in hot climates like nothing better than to take shelter from the sun in the undercarriage of a small yellow car. I became a regular Doctor Dolittle.
I also became a believer in the juicy platitude that love will always come knocking when you least expect it. Cupid raised his arrows in the city of Bangalore, where I teamed up with a redheaded mathematician called Thor, who then accompanied me on my road trip as far as Chennai.
I was schooled on compromise as romance blossomed, in spite of the combined anaphrodisiac forces of stomach upsets, sinusitis, (my) control issues, and disagreements as to the level of poor Thor’s driving prowess. Road trips are apt to drive a wedge through the best of relationships, but I’m happy to report that ours had a joyful conclusion, with a wedding ceremony in Chennai two years later.
But the best lesson I got on the road was from India’s oldest and wisest inhabitants: the bullocks. Bullocks are castrated bovines used for rural farm work and transport of goods. It was to these contemplative, plodding animals that I dedicated the title of my book. It was their calm, unruffled demeanor that taught me the true way to travel — with patience, humility, and a blind eye to the chaos all around; above all, enjoying the ride.
Vanessa Able’s book, Never Mind the Bullocks: One Girl’s 10,000km Adventure Around India in the World’s Cheapest Car, is out now.