As I exit through the arrivals gate at Bengalaru (Bangalore) airport, I feel a surge of nervous anticipation. I don’t think I’ve ever been met by someone holding up my name as you so often see at arrivals gates.
I push my trolley over to the line of Indian men behind the barrier and walk along the line, scanning the names they’re holding up. My heart sinks as I realise my name’s not there. I go along the line a second time to double check. Nope.
I consider my options. I could just get a taxi but I’d probably have to haggle over the price and they might not know the place I’m trying to get to. I double checked with the Mystic School before I left – the place I would call home for the next 3 months – and they confirmed a car would definitely be here to collect me. I decide to try and call them, even though it would probably cost an arm and a leg from my English phone. I have 2 numbers: a landline and a mobile. I try the landline a couple of times but it doesn’t seem to work. I’m not sure if I’m meant to dial a code or not so I go over to an information desk and the lady says the mobile number should work fine. I dial it and thankfully get through first time (but at what cost?!)
Shashi, the owner of the Mystic School, informs me that his driver should be there holding up my name. I hang up and push my trolley down the line again, scouring the list of names. Some of them have changed but my name’s still not there, and some of the men are starting to laugh at me. I keep my cool and wait over to one side again. Luckily I have my hand on my backpack as I feel my silenced phone vibrating. It’s Shashi saying his driver is just parking and will be 5 minutes. I feel reassured and wait in a spot where I can scan the crowd for new arrivals.
5 minutes go by. 10 minutes. 15. It’s after 8pm, I’m tired and just want to get on the road as I know we have a 3-4 hour drive ahead of us. I text Shashi saying he still hasn’t turned up. Then, just as I’m about to call him again, a slightly plump and harrassed-looking Indian man comes puffing towards me out of the crowd. We make eye contact and he holds up a sign saying “Mystic School – Hannah Moss”. Hurrah! My saviour! We both smile and he comes over to pick up my big rucksack. It’s one of those hybrid bags where you can zip the straps away so it’s currently more like a holdall and quite cumbersome to carry. I apologise for it being so heavy but he struggles on and I follow him over to the car park, wondering why we didn’t just keep the trolley.
After a few minutes he gives up, dropping my bag by the side of the road and telling me to wait there while he gets the car. As I stand there watching the numerous cars and buses negotiating their way around the airport roads, I’m suddenly hit by the unmistakable stench of shit. I look down and see a hole in the tarmac right next to me, which presumably leads directly to the sewers below. I imagine a cartoon scene where wafts of vapour rise out and flies are buzzing around the hole. I can’t exactly say I’ve missed that smell but there’s something very Indian about it that makes me feel like I’ve definitely arrived!
Ravi, my driver, pulls up in a very smart, large, air conditioned car that looks brand new and I later find out how lucky I am compared to some of the old bangers my fellow yogis travelled in – some didn’t even have seat belts! I discover that it’s taken Ravi nearly 5 hours to get here from Mysore and now he has to turn around and go all the way back again. I later discover that he hasn’t just made this journey once today but twice! Two 9-hour round trips in one day! No wonder he’s got a bit of a sweat on. He switches on the aircon and I’m extra grateful for having been reunited with my possum fur poncho in the Delhi airport toilets.
And so begins our 4-hour drive to Mysore. Now, if you’ve never driven on Indian roads, or any roads in Asia for that matter, it may be difficult to fully grasp the picture I’m about to paint, but I’ll do my best.
As we hurtle out of the airport we find ourselves on a 3-lane highway that has very clear road markings dividing the lanes. This doesn’t make a blind bit of difference though, as nobody pays any attention to them. There are cars, buses and trucks veering all over the place, weaving in and out of each other and cutting each other up. Ravi gets straight in there, straddling 2 lanes, honking his horn and driving like a pro. Streams of men and women walk up the side of the highway, practically in the middle of the lane, without a care in the world.
As the road turns into more of a track, full of bumps and potholes, it almost seems more appropriate that there are no road markings. With no lane divisions it doesn’t matter where you drive and it turns into a complete free-for-all. For 4 hours we continue like this: swerving, cutting in, getting cut up, overtaking willy-nilly this side or that, driving up each other’s rear ends and sometimes even driving off road in the dirt and dust to get round queues of beautifully decorated trucks waiting at junctions or level crossings. There are people everywhere: in cars and buses, hanging off trucks, 3 or 4 straddling each motorbike, wandering across roads and junctions. Dogs amble into the road making us swerve around them, or else chase after motorbikes until they can no longer keep up.
I wonder how Ravi manages it. He seems like a very experienced driver for which I’m eternally grateful, but it must take such a huge amount of concentration and he’s been driving for about 13 hours already today! I see a sign reading “Follow lane discipline. Please drive carefully” and nearly burst out laughing.
As you quickly realise on Indian roads, it is customary to use your horn as a driving tool. Most of the trucks have signs on the back saying “Blow horn” or “Sound horn ok” and some even say “Use dippers at night”. I notice that Ravi is doing this a lot – flashing people with his lights. I ask him why he does this and he replies in his best broken English “Means I am going going. Going fast. You stay left, I stay right.”
At first glance (or rather sound) you might be forgiven for thinking that constantly blowing your horn means you’re letting people in, signifying that they can go in front of you. But, oh no. Not in India. In India you quickly discover it’s every man for himself. British politeness just doesn’t exist. If you want something you have to take it. I’m not saying Indians are rude, it’s just they have a certain assertiveness that a shy, retiring English wallflower might find very difficult to get used to.
Other vehicles constantly cut us up and almost clip the front of our car. I’m glad I’m not a nervous passenger and have faith in Ravi’s driving; I wonder if anything more than my occasional sharp intake of breath might be considered rude. At one point someone cuts us up badly and we very nearly have a nasty collision, despite the constant horn blowing. Ravi has to brake sharply, then laughs and says “He is coming”. No shit. On another occasion a man staggers across the road, right in our path. Ravi slams on his brakes again and honks the horn fiercely at him. He doesn’t seem to take much notice and Ravi mutters something about too much drinking.
Now there’s just one last thing I need to mention about the drive from Bangalore to Mysore, and that’s the speed bumps. It seems bizarre that they should have such things given the sheer amount of traffic on the roads, which hinders any hope of travelling above about 50mph. But have them they do. In abundance. Sometimes they’re just a gentle bump in the road so we have to gently slow down to go over them. But other times there are 6 sharp ridges in a row. Yes, 6. The front wheels go over: bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bump. Then the back wheels go over: bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bump. And if you happen to be drifting off to sleep at this point, I can guarantee you won’t be asleep for long.
I’m just wondering how Ravi even sees when the bumps are coming, when one of them sneaks up on him unexpectedly. He doesn’t have time to slow down and slams on the brakes as we career over the bump, banging the bottom of the car as we go. He makes some sort of gentle exclamation but this is the loudest reaction I’ve heard from him during the entire journey.
Despite the alarmingly chaotic car ride, I find myself smiling inwardly to myself the whole way. I’m feeling so happy and calm and can’t believe I’m actually here. Everything seems so familiar somehow. Same same but different. And as we pull up outside the Mystic School in Mysore just after midnight, I feel so grateful to be here: to have the means to be able to get here in the first place; to have had a safe (for the most part) and comfortable journey; to have arrived in one piece. And, as we wake up Ravi’s colleague to let us in, I step through the doors of the Mystic School, intrigued to see the place I’ll be calling home for the next 3 months.