Me and My Car
If you’re a wanderer at heart or even a couch wanderer with daydreams, you must have, at some point in your life, had this fantasy about setting off on a discovery of India. Finding your way through green fields and deserts, urban sprawls and beaches; watching the sun rise over a mountain and set over a fort; stopping to eat fruit fresh off the trees or to take in the beauty of a timeless landscape; sleeping under the stars maybe, picking up an adventure or two along the way for sure.
So what’s stopping you? Family, job, money? Bad food and tummy upsets? Thieves, rapists and murderers lurking around corners? Dirty hotel rooms and filthy loos? Goodbye to your beauty regimen? That’s a list guaranteed to stop most women in their tracks.
But not Vanessa Able, journalist and traveller, somewhat addicted to India and danger. At 33, recovering from a painful break-up at her parents’ home in the damp cold of the Jersey Islands in the English Channel, she was looking for something to “shake up the dusty snow dome of my 30s”. That something turned out to be the just-launched Nano, a car that fuelled her imagination and more importantly, was low-cost enough to make a road trip across India viable for her. Itching to get started, she sealed a long-distance deal for a lemon yellow second-hand Nano, packed her bags and landed in Mumbai one warm February morning in 2010.
Her goal: a journey of over 10,000 kms across India in her Nano. She would start off from Mumbai, drive along the western coast of India right down to Kanyakumari, do a geographical U-turn and go up the east coast, take a 45-degree left at Kolkata, climb up to McLeodganj in the Himalayas, and then whoosh down to Mumbai via Delhi. All this within three months and on a budget, of course. And oh, did I forget to tell you that she did it all on her own? And that she’s a terrific driver but not particularly handy with a breakdown? (“I wouldn’t know the difference between an oil dipper and a spark plug.”)
Was that asking for a little too much adventure, perhaps? Vanessa’s cheerful explanation: “I think I set goals for myself that I don’t consider too carefully. Because if I did, I would conclude that they were impossible and I wouldn’t be able to do them!” Given India’s miserable rep when it comes to the safety of women and foreigners in particular, it’s a near-miracle that Vanessa came through this adventure unscathed, though she did manage to stave off a couple of over-enthusiastic males. “If I had to do the drive now, I might have a different perspective,” she admits but points out, “You face a certain amount of danger travelling alone in any country. There are nuts everywhere. But I’ve been travelling alone since I was very young. So that’s given me a very good sense of potential danger and how to get out of its way.”
Listen to her tales and you realise that a woman who’s backpacked across Iraq at a time when no tourists ventured there is not likely to be fazed by much. “I have a history of putting myself in strange situations that I haven’t really thought through till the end,” she laughs.
Among her other journeys are her first solo road trip at 19, driving across New Zealand; the classic US road trip from Phoenix, Arizona, through Death Valley and the Grand Canyon to Joshua Tree; a trip across Europe from France to Greece and driving her car from Italy to England. Plus three backpacking trips in India in her college days.
Sounds like an adventure junkie, I remark. “I do think people tend to over-worry about safety and things like that,” she says. “Bad things do happen but they happen in small instances most often. Adventure and taking oneself out of one’s comfort zone can, for the most part, be fantastically informative and productive.”
One of the by-products of her Indian odyssey is a book, The Nanologues, that was released recently. It’s as much a travelogue as a journey of self-discovery, filled with moments of sheer panic, desperation, learning, quiet beauty, reflection and self-realisation. It opens with her baptism by fire on National Highway 66, the route from Mumbai down the Konkan Coast, a rocky stretch even by Indian standards.
Here, she encounters the ‘truck sandwich’, ‘farty buses’, India’s version of the ‘daredevil double overtake’, gets hit by the ‘shit-caked tails’ of a gang of buffaloes, has her GPS die on her and gets lost at night…just for starters.
Expectedly, the misadventures pop up at regular intervals. En route to Madurai, she has an elephant groping around inside her car, leaving it covered with a stinky slime. In a petrol station toilet, she bumps into a monkey drinking from the toilet bowl. She battles bed bugs in filthy hotel rooms, sees goats slaughtered at Kolkata’s Kali temple, drives through Naxalite country, partakes of the langar at the Golden Temple.
It is, for the most part, the usual bag of classic Indian tourist vignettes. Including the mandatory dose of spirituality. At the Osho ashram, she learns to let go and not to “stand apart from the madness”. And at Land’s End in Kanyakumari, tired and grumbling, she is energised by a quote of Swami Vivekananda’s: ‘What I want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel….’ As she puts it, “The Swami was sending me a message…to pull myself together and put a sock in it.”
By the end of her trip, she has changed deep inside. Almost at the end of the journey, she has a meltdown; she simply can’t bring herself to go any further. “I had been concentrating so hard on achieving a goal,” she says. “There were everyday deadlines: I have to do so many miles today, I have to get to this place by this time. I would get so frustrated when a journey that the GPS would tell me would take five hours took 10.”
But at the end of that despair, came a moment of realisation. “I said to myself, just stop fighting. I realised that what I needed to have was acceptance, not to constantly fight what was in front of me. That there’s some kind of art to negotiating what’s going on outside without damaging what’s going on inside.”
THE REAL LOVE STORY
Vanessa, has done six long road trips. “When I was younger, it was about the sense of freedom. I enjoyed the feeling of being on my own, being able to do whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it,” she says. “You don’t have to compromise with anybody, and that’s something that means a lot to me as an only child who never had to compromise with siblings.” She laughs, “I enjoy that.”
I ask her, what’s your response to all those jokes about women drivers? “Without getting too arrogant, I can say you need to get into the car with me for 15 minutes to see what my driving is all about. Women can and should be excellent drivers because we have an innate gift for multi-tasking and we’re instinctive, both of which are good traits to have for drivers.” Her own driving and parking skills, she says, zoomed up after her stints in India, especially Mumbai.
They come in handy in Rome, where she now lives with her husband.
The one companion Vanessa was ready to make any compromise for was her trusty ‘steed’, nicknamed Abhilasha (Sanskrit: desire, aspiration). It is a relationship that unfolds tenderly, this love story between Vanessa and Abhilasha, a woman and a trusted friend on a life-altering journey. It’s a bond forged over long days and a joint solitude: just the two of them against the rest of the world. So that’s the story that stays with you really. As any woman who likes to lead her own life will tell you, it’s a car and not a rock that is really a girl’s best friend.