It amazes me how much the Western culture has this idea of ‘poor them’ in relation to the billions of impoverished people on this planet. It’s true, they are materially poor and if I had it my way, there would be a better quality of life for everyone. But we don’t see what we have lost in order to gain what we have. Do we really get to know and understand our family? Do we revere our elders and hear their stories? Do we harmonise with the rhythms of nature and know which fruits are good for picking? Do we have time to build upon the strong foundations of friendship? Do we even have time to know ourselves?
Spend a few months in India and you may have the unique opportunity to really get to know and understand a dimension of our world that we long forgot. Yes you may also endure bucket showers and squat toilets, yes your stomach may churn after a curry tickles your insides the wrong way. Yes, you may get ripped off by a man who sees your pasty skin and knows that you’re an easy weeks salary affording his family dinner for a month. Be ready to have your nostrils opened to a world of smells unfathomable. Rotten city streets, a burning body on the holy ghats, incense, spices and the noises of life moving so devotionally together. Oh your eardrums might meet the sounds of the populace moving around miraculously unscathed by the masses but hugged by a brother just met on the train. And there can be times when it is tough and it brings out a side to you, you never knew existed and it is not always pretty. That I know.
I’m with my Mum and we’re meandering through the hills of tea country, Munnar in South India. Our driver, about 60 years old and a gentle soul points out the rubber trees, tests my knowledge on the teas and takes us to the pineapple fields where we may pick one for a refreshing bite. As our old fashioned white classic car turns a corner, I see a motorcycle. In a moment I feel life and death switch places like I blinked and when my eyes opened everything changed. We hit a bump, my mother screams a shrill so piercing my heart immediately starts racing like she’d just had a nightmare and we suddenly stop. We stop. We hit the motorcyclist and he might be dead. My mother is next to me shaking in hysterics and this gentle tour of the tea plantations has taken a dark turn.
Before I have chance to even consider what I might be subjecting my eyes to, I instinctively jump out the car to see if the motorcyclist is ok. A man’s body is sprawled on the floor with a pool of blood around him. Oh god. He’s making noises as though he is waking up to the realisation that both his limbs have been deeply cut. And they have. I take off my tie-dye silk scarf and tie up his leg putting pressure on the place where the dark red blood is coming out of and I run back to the car. He’s alive Mum. Our driver is in shock. Give me your scarf. That scarf I spent two hours searching high and low through the stores of Cochin to find the right gift for you and bartering a lot of the way. That scarf that meant so much to you when I gave it to you and said I love you. I need the scarf Mum because the guy has cut open both of his legs and there’s blood going everywhere, he may have cut an artery. I need your scarf, sorry.
I run back to the man. Chubby faced. Someone’s husband perhaps. Someone’s father. I wrap the other leg with my Mum’s new silk scarf and reassure him. Cars have started to stop to ask what has happened, who’s fault is it, what happened? I don’t know. One minute we were driving along and the next moment the bike appeared and then, this. This happened. A motorcyclist clipped our front corner and got flung off his bike. He could’ve fallen off the side of the mountain, dear God. Who’s fault? I don’t know. But who’s fault matters in India you see. In India, you’re in karmic hell for causing a car crash and the locals are allowed to punish you. The local boys look over at our driver. I am stood between them. Our driver, a sweet man with a moustache and without a doubt the best driver we’d had the whole trip looks up honestly. He had never been in an accident before, he’s a safe man. It wasn’t his fault I say, it’s not his fault. It is no-one’s fault. I love this man and I want to protect him dearly. There’s no way they are hurting our driver, he’s an old man for goodness sake and the kindest Indian man we’ve met this whole trip. We need an ambulance, not a riot. I’m annoyed.
I smell tension in the air and my mother comes out the car. She goes over to the injured man and seeing his injury she holds him to her bosom like a mother would a child and starts crying “Oh my God” she cries holding him in her arms. Rocking him gently from side to side. Oh my God. The motorcyclist sees himself through her eyes and starts to cry too. He shakily reaches in to his pocket to call his wife on an old nokia. He’s crying to her as he speaks. Tells her he has had an accident. He’s alive but his legs are hurt badly and… and that he loves her. He loves her very much. Their lives in this sudden shift of collided worlds have been rewritten. He can’t work. He can’t support his family. I don’t think I will ever forget how moving that moment was.
A truck full of women donning saris pulls up. Please can you take this man to the hospital? He needs to go to the hospital. Our driver helps the man up and together they go in to the back of the truck. One of the village boys calls someone to collect us so we can finish our tour before he jumps in his truck and drives away. And then everyone’s gone and I am looking at Mum and she is looking at me. Neither of us could understand what had happened but it certainly did. The veil got thin there Mum, it got really thin.
An old man walks past me and offers me a cigarette. I don’t smoke but for some reason I thought perhaps it might help. I say yes. It doesn’t work, my throat feels dry and my mouth tastes disgusting but I keep smoking because I might as well. Death just came seriously close and we nearly saw our driver get a beating. I can tell myself the cigarette will help and convince myself it to be true knowing deep down it is not.
Later I phoned our driver again. The motorcyclist had had an operation and was being relocated to a hospital further out of town. Our driver had decided to stay with him. The village boys weren’t going after him as it turned out that the motorcyclist was driving without his engine on down the hills in order to save fuel. He didn’t have the power in his turns to avoid his back wheel flying out and clipping our car which caused the accident. These are the times when I wish money wasn’t an issue for people so they’d do less stupid things. Although it seems with money people do still do stupid things.
What moved me the most was to learn that they had become friends. Lasting friends so I heard. What a beautiful silver lining that was.
After this incident, I promised I would train in First Aid again. I spoke to two of my best friends that day on the phone but I don’t think they quite understood how traumatic it had been for Mum and I and it wasn’t until we explained the incident to our tour operator in his office in Fort Cochin that I felt understood. A tear fell down the man’s face as he explained how relieved he was that everyone was ok. “They are so sensitive the Indian people” my mother said. They are Mum, but perhaps they are also strong enough to open their hearts to feeling another’s pain. That was no walk in the park.
India shaped me in ways I can’t begin to explain, it washed over me like a scrubbing brush scouring at the bottom of a saucepan after it has been sat on a bonfire. The good times out weighed the bad. This was the last week I had with my Mum. We’d spent 6 weeks backpacking around South India together and it was the hardest travel either of us had faced and the beginning of my ‘big adventure’. We finished our trip on the tranquil backwaters of Allepey in Kerala on a motorless boat. I wrote poetry, read a book and Mum finally just relaxed. We both finally relaxed. There were no sounds beyond the birds that surrounded the waters and the mantras of the local temple. We visited a local wedding and witnessed the most beautiful sunsets among the rice paddies.
When I took Mum to Mumbai airport I remember we lied to the security guard so I could sneak in to the International Departures lounge to see her off. I felt uncomfortable lying and the security guard sensed it. He checked my ticket and knew we were lying. In England I would’ve been shamed for it but instead this man looked at a mother and daughter at the airport, both in tears as they said goodbye and he apologised to us that we’d need to go different ways.
“Promise me you won’t go on a motorcycle darling. Please. And promise me you won’t live in India.” These were the words Mum left me with. Seven months later I fell off a motorcycle in Nepal leaving me with a heart shaped scar on my arm and a reminder of my Mother’s wise words. I chose not to stay in India, but I considered it. The car crash was nearly four years ago and life has thrown a lot more fortune my way than not, dramas have settled a lot and I’ve had more quality time with loved ones and inspiring adventures than I ever could’ve done before.
Happy surprises still light up my journey more and more. And when life and death link arm in arm and one’s mortally comes dangerously close, perspective certainly does change and one may see what has been taken for granted. Really taken for granted. It’s sad that it takes something to be gone, to appreciate it when it was there. I never want to feel that way about my family.
Wealth is the substance in you, it's the people that care for you and that you care for, it's the experiences you had and the perspectives you’ve attained. Things happen in life don't they? One minute everything's ok and the next something big takes hold. Living on the road, treasures become less material but more associated with an interaction with a person, a precious moment shared and all the beautiful insight one can nourish themselves in from rolling through its waves.