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June 16, 2008 / calebdresser

Road trippin’

…and so it was that I found myself in a minivan crammed full of bearded and turbaned Sikhs whom I had met not five minutes before. Camels, cars and horse-carts flew past the windows as we swerved through the chaos of a tiny country lane. The enormous man next to me asked in a deep, benevolent voice if I had learned to swear in Hindi yet…


The day had begun inauspiciously. Dr. Kumar took longer than expected coming from Delhi, so by the time he had picked up Dr. Gathala and myself, we were running rather late. The driver seemed bent on making up for it, though, and for the next six hours we spent more time passing something than driving in relative safety on the left side of the road. Driving in India is hilarious and terrifying, depending on your mood and whether the chuckling scientists you are traveling with have decided it would be fun to see how the American reacts to sitting in the front seat. I’ve been in car accidents and I’ve landed light aircraft in high winds, but neither experience can compare with the first two hours of our drive to Punjab. We did slaloms through throngs of cattle. We played chicken with tractor-trailers. We came within inches of countless motorcycles, and at one point I became briefly but intimately acquainted with the doleful face of an errant cow. It was an exuberant madness.


As we crossed into Haryana province the fields changed from sugarcane to paddy-rice, and I found it in my gentlemanly heart to relinquish the front seat. The next couple hundred kilometers passed more peacefully – perhaps ignorance really is bliss. Between the early hour of departure and my shattered nerves, I was soon in state of reflective hibernation, by turns sleeping and gazing out the window. The fields stretched off into a sultry haze, trees fading into grey blobs, the none-too-distant horizon melting into the sky. Somewhere in this stretch of (apparently flat) road we crossed the sub-continental divide and left the Ganges basin, for when they next roused me we were crossing a river that flowed west into Pakistan, only about 40 km away.

As we approached Amritsar, it came time to find our contact, who was at a agricultural machine shop somewhere along the highway. For guys traveling by road in India, all I can say is you better either grow a pair or bring along a woman, because asking for directions is absolutely essential. After a certain amount of shouted Hindi and jolting U-turns, we arrived at our destination. We were met by a walking cultural commentary almost as soon as we stepped out of the car, one man clean-shaved in a neat collared shirt, the other sporting a wispy beard and dusty kurta-pajamas beneath his brown head wrapping. Gold-rimmed spectacles hinted at class and education, and his bearing was that of a man accustomed to authority.

Inside the machine shop, flashes of blue light illuminated dark beards on the faces of the welders. Open gas flames hissed and lines of apricot-orange glowed on the surface of the metal. Unsure of their customs, I took no pictures. Our contact explained that they were modifying the machinery for their Direct-Seeded Rice operations, trying to improve seed use efficiency and germination. The talk turned techincal, alternating between Hindi and English. A few minutes later we went upstairs and met the Sikh contingent, and agreed to tour a few farmer’s fields immediately – they had been patiently awaiting our arrival for nearly five hours. As we headed outside, Drs. Gathala and Kumar went to the car deep in conversation with our host, and it became clear I wouldn’t fit. Turning, I smiled hopefully at the beckoning Sikhs…



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  1. Becky / Jun 17 2008 12:15 am

    I loved this post, especially the description of the roads. CRAZY. Reminded me of Kenyan roads. Hey, were there seatbelts? Caleb, you are on the other side of the world, but your posts make you not as far away. Today at work we had a tornado drill, which is like a fire drill but you run to the basement instead of running outside of the building. And.. have you learned to swear in hindi yet?

  2. calebdresser / Jun 17 2008 11:15 am

    TORNADO drill? hot damn, climate change must have happened while i was away! I’m guessing roads in kenya are fun too… if thats the kinda thing you like! miss you – say hi to the puppies.

  3. Winslow / Jun 17 2008 8:37 pm

    Remember the dump truck in Belize passing us with the 5 guys on the roof drinking beer and waving?

    Sounds like that but 10 times crazier.

  4. Joel / Jun 17 2008 11:29 pm

    Driving in the third world can be a startling experience. I live in Boston, which has the worst drivers in the USA, but I was still shocked by what I saw in Egypt. When the lights were green, it was full speed ahead. When the light turned red, it was full speed ahead with the horn on. It was almost impossible to cross the main streets. The traffic volume was continuous 24 hrs a day, and no one would stop. There was a continuous din from horns that made it difficult to sleep in the city. I was there for two weeks and I was in three accidents. Actually, they were not all accidents. One was an on purpose. I was taking a bus out of Cairo on a six lane divided highway. The bus was in the left lane. Three soldiers were trying to cross this highway, and somehow they had made it to the median. They were trying to edge their way out to get cars to make a gap so they could complete their crossing. The bus driver beeped his horn at them, and then his obligations were over. He just ran right into them, and knocked them down back into the median. He never slowed down or touched the brakes. Those soldiers probably starved to death on that median.

    Later I was taking a cab in a small town. The driver was speeding as usual when a horse drawn cart suddenly trotted out in front of us at an intersection. The car hit the horse broadside and knocked him to the ground. The cart driver turned to my driver with some sharp words, probably along the lines of what a nice day it was today. He then turned to his horse, who was struggling to get up while being tangled in his cart harness, and began beating him with his whip to assist him in his efforts. I had to restrain my wife who wanted to go punch that guy in the face. That was all 20 years ago. I don’t know what it is like there now.

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