Eat, Pray, Drive

The Sunday Times
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Most stirring tales of self-discovery don’t tend to climax with a woman having a panicked breakdown on a petrol forecourt 120 miles from the finish line at midnight. Mine does, however, and though it wasn’t really what I had in mind when I set out from Mumbai three months previously, with 6,000 miles of Indian roads ahead of me, hindsight does compel me to ask: “What the hell were you expecting?”

The dismal period following an emotional break-up, can, if handled correctly, be very productive. Especially when it coincides with a career lull and the general notion that the dust globe of one’s thirties needs a shake-up. So, back in 2010, newly single at 33 and a bit down in the dumps, I decided that the most constructive thing I could do was succumb to a twisted form of retail therapy meets wanderlust. And drive around India. My acquisition was the cheapest new car in the world — the £2,000 Tata Nano — and my challenge was India’s perilous road network.

In retrospect, there were kinder things I could have done for myself. I could have gone on a yoga retreat, taken up pottery or had a radical haircut. Instead, my decision to drive several thousand miles on some of the world’s most dangerous roads was an act of cowardly escapism. Only a quest for survival could silence the droning soliloquy of romantic woe. I imagined speeding between paddy fields at sunset, sending flocks of birds into the air as I sliced though rocky desert landscapes, waving back at happy locals, who welcomed me at every step.

Kanyakumari beach (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)

Kanyakumari beach (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)

In fact, I practically swore my way around the country in a “road Tourette’s” kind of way. Within minutes of leaving Mumbai, heading south into rural Maharashtra, I came close to death by overtaking a truck; risked near-death by insanely bright headlights; death and punctures by multiple hungry potholes; nigh-on death by herds of advancing livestock; and permanent eardrum damage — if not quite death — by honking, gazillion-decibel horns. I nearly drove off an unfinished bridge, Road Runner-style, after failing to read the roadworks-diversion signs; and I narrowly avoided slamming into an HGV that had stopped perpendicular to oncoming traffic on the motorway, while performing several last-minute swerves to miss other trucks that were driving in both the fast lane and the wrong direction.

Which is why my eventual mini-meltdown came as no surprise, even if, by rights, I should have been wiped out weeks before by something far more violent. But it was during incidents such as my squaring up to a monkey who was hogging the loo in a petrol station — or cleaning elephant-trunk slime from the dashboard with a tiny wet-wipe, or getting drunk with the “Maharaja of Omkareshwar” and his pack of rodent-scragging dogs — that I clocked how much fun being out of my comfort zone actually was. And that I loved every white-knuckle, gas-guzzling, horn-blaring, cow-dodging minute. This twisted driving remedy was working, but not for the reasons I’d expected.

For the first few hundred miles, I was concerned with the basics: negotiating traffic, navigation, finding appropriate places to pee. Once I had those nailed, I moved on to deeper road issues, such as how to disperse a herd of bullocks without causing a stampede, and the best way to overtake uphill on a blind curve. The third, more spiritual stage involved dealing with inevitable road hypnosis and taming the control freak who always wanted to go further and faster. (At an average speed of 25mph, 6,000 miles can go by excruciatingly slowly.)

A wedding blessing for Thor and Vanessa (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)

A wedding blessing for Thor and Vanessa (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)

Along the way I met the man who would become my husband. Thor is a French-American redhead with a PhD in maths and a love of meditation that brought him to an ashram in Madras on an annual basis. We hooked up in that casual, devil-may-care way that travellers in India do, except that on our first day together I had the squits and he had an acute allergic reaction to what we could only deduce was the air itself. We sat in a hotel room in Bangalore taking turns to run to the bathroom: him to empty his sinuses, me to empty my bowels. Hardly the epitome of romantic starts, but it worked for us. We hardly knew one another, but I decided to take a chance on him and let him into the passenger seat as far as Madras. Two years later, we were married and then remarried in India at Thor’s ashram.

Given the unlikeliness of it all, I’ve occasionally allowed myself to entertain the soft-focus fantasy that somehow this was all meant to be, and the fact that the book I wrote about the trip became a bestseller in India somehow supports this suspicion. Which brings me to the following metaphysical consideration. Going from a country of polite, rule-abiding drivers to a country of road anarchy and rules of thumb is an experience that, after the initial shredding of nerves, taught me the lost art of relinquishing control and going with the flow. What looked like chaos at first glance was actually a system subject to its own set of algorithms, just like any other. And once the dance was learnt, the experience was transforming.

A short sojourn at Osho Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune introduced me to the principles of sanctioned madness and letting go of one’s inhibitions, a crash course in insanity that stood me in good stead for the ups and downs that marked the remainder of the trip. After all, the decision to drive around India (why India? Why a Tata Nano?) can be explained logically (because it’s a fascinating country, because the car stands for India’s emerging economic might), but really the reasons I gave were just public alibis for the far less articulate urge that led me to open doors I never thought I had the bottle for.

They might be utterly bonkers, but India’s roads took good care of me. They were the place where I reclaimed my mojo.

What I Learned About Life and Love Driving the Roads of India

Yahoo! News
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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.