Death By . . .?
Story and Photos By Linda N. Cortright
Driving in Delhi is a lot like childbirth. Unless you have either given birth or tried forcing a human being out your nose, you just don’t get it. Driving in Delhi may not be physically painful, but unless you have been in the back seat of a car, or even worse . . .the front seat, and raced through the streets like you’re filming a James Bond movie, you just don’t get it. My friend Mahli, who has been my driver in Delhi for 14 years, has some not-so-hidden aspirations of being a stunt driver. At least, that’s the only way I know how to explain his behavior. And to be clear, Mahli’s car looks like it’s been handled by a stunt driver with enough scratches and dents to make a body shop owner weep.
Alternatively, I could hire one of the luxury sedans from my hotel (for a princely sum) and go about my errands in relative tranquility. But I would miss out on Mahli’s good humor and to be honest, I’m so accustomed to his driving it almost feels normal.
Several weeks back, as we were going the wrong way down a one-way street (this is not the first time and certainly not the last), I casually mention that “we” don’t do this in the U.S. . . . “We only go the direction we’re supposed to.”
“I know,” he replies, clearly disheartened. “There is no excitement when you drive in U.S.” (I should explain that Mahli’s daughter went to college in the U.S. and is now in graduate school. He has firsthand knowledge.)
“I drove my friends from North Carolina to Washington D.C.” he continues. “It was a great big highway with six lanes. I put the car on cruise control and did nothing for six hours. It was like a driver-less car.” Mahli glances over at me and with full exasperation concludes, “Where is the excitement?”
Three days later I am standing outside my Heritage Haveli in Jaipur, waiting for my driver who will take me to Ranthambore National Park. Where, if I am lucky, I just might see a tiger. But it’s the four-hour drive to reach there that has me nervous. It’s not the other cars on the road that concern me; it’s the army of street dogs sprinting through traffic; it’s the cows sleeping in the middle of the road; it’s the shepherd and his herd of goats trotting along ten inches of pavement dedicated as the “shoulder.” And then there are the elephants commuting to work—the ones who spend their day ferrying tourists up the long entrance to Amber Fort. And, of course, the camel herds (up to thirty in a pack) plodding down both lanes with some more attuned to oncoming traffic than others. This is what makes me nervous. A fender bender in Delhi is just that, a bit of crumpled metal, or, in some cases, a hunk of molded plastic. But living creatures are a different matter and I contemplate putting on an additional N95 mask. This one to cover my eyes should we encounter a mutilated body.
The moment I step into the Haveli’s courtyard, a young boy in a safari shirt and blue jeans comes running over. “Excuse me, M’dam. Are you Miss Linda?”
I nod my head and reach out to shake his hand. “And what is your name, please?”
Nadeem, my driver, asks to have his picture taken with me outside my Haveli and I acquiesce. In India, getting your picture taken with a foreigner is "a thing." Frankly, I don't get it. But it is pervasive throughout the land.
I don’t know for sure, but I think Nadeem might be sixteen — eighteen, at the most. But he certainly hasn’t spent enough years dodging four-legged creatures at 50 mph for my comfort. But what can I do? He grabs my carry-on and puts it in the back of the SUV (no discernible dents) and asks about the rest of my luggage?
“No, that’s it.”
He looks at me— shocked. Admittedly, he doesn’t know that I have just had a 70-pound box shipped to the US, filled with items I hope to sell both online and at festivals. My personal belongings, however, number no more than a few cotton outfits and a quart of sunscreen. A respectable India woman wouldn’t be caught dead traveling with such a modest wardrobe selection. Her jewelry alone could fill a small suitcase. But a retired goat farmer from Maine? Well, we travel light.
We begin our journey south and I soon realize that Nadeem’s English is limited, but as I am always quick to remember, it’s far greater than my Hindi. It’s easier for both if we keep our conversation to the minimum. Politely he asks, “You want washroom?” Or “You want chai?” If I decline either or both, I then hear, “ I want washroom.” Or “I want chai.” And we make the appropriate stop. But honestly, even in the few words we exchange, he is clearly so very sweet and anxious to please.
Located outside the city of Jaipur, Amber (Amer) Fort is old, massive, a UNESCO heritage site, and crawling with elephants–they are the "Uber" of old.
After several hours, which have been thankfully uneventful, I reach for my phone and using the locator tool determine where we are on the map and then estimate how much longer until we reach Ranthambore. The magic navigator tells me it’s another 94 kms, which isn’t too bad and so I pull out my computer, hot spot the cell service from my phone and begin answering emails. The juxtaposition of driving past shepherds wearing a turban the size of a golf bag, and my ability to channel a satellite from outer space is not lost on me.
As I continue responding to the emails flooding my Inbox, many of which are from guests traveling on my tours to Scotland this summer and desperate to understand the necessary Covid restrictions, I alternate between providing the latest "best guess" and a reflexive desire to write, “Holy crap! I just drove past six elephants,” (neglecting to mention that I’m replying from India). But it’s like Mahli and childbirth, they just wouldn’t understand. And then, without warning, the windows on the right side of the car go dark like a solar eclipse. It lasts only a second or two but I jerk my head up in time to see a truck, about the size of my old farm pick-up truck, but it has something stuffed under a giant tarp in the back that takes up more space than a pair of copulating elephants. Even by Indian standards it is crazy huge. By the time I can find the words to politely ask Nadeem, “What the hell was that?” It’s out of sight.
We continue on for another 10 kms. I have stopped writing emails and instead, I am focusing on the road, hoping to see another one of these aberrations, when sure enough, I spot another pick-up with the huge tarp in the back, and potentially more randy pachyderms underneath. I am almost nervous to ask Nadeem, in case my hunch is correct and he’s not going to have the English words to explain.
Nadeem doesn’t seem to take particular note of the truck as it passes in the other lane, but now I have a full six seconds to inspect the hidden contents. The way it’s bulging at the top and oozing dangerously over the sides, I decide it’s probably not romance related after all. Possibly it's a load of wool, maybe even camel wool? Finally. I work up the nerve and ask Nadeem.
So many questions run through my mind when I see this truck. How can the driver see? Why don't the tires explode? How do you even open the door?
And last of all, supposing it tips over?
“Yes, big crop.”
The news makes me feel both relieved and disappointed. I am fascinated to learn that mustard seed is such an important crop, and apparently quite manageable for small-scale farmers, but from a fiber perspective I was rather hoping they were loaded with something more story worthy. I vividly remember seeing a truck with a similar bulge (but a much larger truck) driving down the highway outside of Jansenville, South Africa, and learning the whole thing was filled with mohair!
With all due respect to its biblical significance this truckload left me wanting. But it was still worthy of a picture and soon thereafter I saw yet another one parked along the side of the road and so I hopped out for a quick moment. I get back in the car and check my magic navigator. We are only 22 kms from Ranthambore and I mentally transition from fibers to tigers.
“You want washroom?” Nadeem asks.
“No, thank you. I’ll wait.”
“You want chai?”
“No, thank you. I’ll wait.”
“I need washroom.” Nadeem says.
“Yes. Okay.” And I offer a big smile, so he knows I don’t mind if we stop. (Of course, I don’t mind. But he’s so polite.)
Nadeem knows the road well and clearly has his favorite stops planned. Within minutes, he pulls alongside a small shop, big enough to sell a bottle of soda and spicy chips but not much more. By chance, there is yet another overloaded mustard seed truck parked out front and so I scoot out to take one more picture. Unfortunately, my pale skin and long camera lens attract more attention than a hook-and-ladder fire truck. A group of men sitting under a tree having tea immediately begin smiling and waving at me. One of them approaches and asks if he can take a selfie. I nod politely but inside I am squealing with embarrassment. I lean into his shoulder for a quick snap when another man —from across the street — comes running towards me. Oh God, I think, another selfie. But I am wrong. He is the owner of the truck and wants me to pose next to it. I do, and as I raise my hands in a mock gesture of holding it up, I have the most horrible thought, supposing the whole bloody mess tips over and crushes me to death?
Death by mustard seed! Of all the dangers lurking on the streets in India, I now have a new one to add to the list. I can't wait to tell Malhi all about it.
Next week I will be at Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival*, where there will be plenty of fiber-ly stories to follow.
*If you happen to be within 1,000 miles of Howard County Fairgrounds next weekend, please stop the festival and see us. We are in the main building, booth C-23.
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