Trust the Driver by Connie L. Habash

 

A personal pilgrimage to India teaches me to trust the Driver of my life.
It was after 11pm, India time, when we finally got through customs and out onto the arrival area of the airport at Trivandrum, Kerala. I was on a pilgrimage – a journey to my spiritual teacher’s ashram between the coast and the backwaters of this southernmost state. My travel companion, Vaidehi, arranged in advance for a taxi to take us to our hotel downtown. I was relieved. Seeing the strange men lined up, staring at all of us ragged and tired westerners, I would not have known whom to trust.

Our young driver’s name was Gananath, one of the names of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who removes obstacles and is worshipped first in Hindu rituals. I considered this an auspicious beginning to our excursion, and felt at ease as he loaded our suitcases into the trunk of the classic white Ambassador.

 

Passenger anxiety

Nevertheless, I heard that people drove haphazardly on the streets in India and didn’t know what to expect. Back at home, I had enough anxiety in the passenger seat of other people’s cars; but now with a stranger in a foreign country?

Being so late at night, I didn’t have to worry much about the driving – we scarcely encountered another car in our 15 minute trip to the South Park hotel. Still, I was surprised at the many dogs running loose on the streets, and the driver didn’t slow down for them at all. There seemed to be an understanding that the dogs know to get out of the way. Each time I feared we would hit one, but always missed. It was my first taste of learning to trust the process here in this different culture.

 

Adjusting to chaos

Gananath eased my nervousness on the streets of India. The following day, touring the largest city in the state of Kerala, I felt that he understood the western trepidation of Indian driving. I don’t think he changed how he drove, but he had an aura of competence and patience about him.

That aura was in contrast to the chaotic, almost manic flow of traffic. Everyone seemed to be out to pass everyone else. There were no lines on the road, nor any rules to speak of, except honk if you’re overtaking (their word for passing). Indians seem to have great faith in the whole process, whereas we Americans need everything regulated, defined, and orderly.

As we departed for the beach town of Varkala, our next destination, I dared to look ahead at the highway in front of us. This overtaking issue seemed crazy. Buses and trucks passing taxis, passing auto-rickshaws, passing bicycles, and avoiding pedestrians all at the same time made me gasp and clench the seat again and again. I tried to hide it and took some deep breaths. Many times we were passing a bus when another bus came right at us! Somehow, everyone makes room and it all works out.

To add to the dilemma, there were no seat belts. Just the two of us in the back seat, bouncing on every bump. I tried not to think about what would happen if the driver hit the brakes all of a sudden. Luckily, I didn’t hear about gory Indian highway accidents until much later in my trip. So, rather than continue to watch the road, I practiced trust. All this worry did me no good.

 

The One at the wheel

I looked out the side windows to watch the endless parade of fascinating shops, produce stands, people carrying pots on their heads, children in school uniforms, and women in beautiful saris along the roads. Most of the men had mustaches, and the women wore their dark hair back in a braid or long ponytail. There were plenty of sights, sounds, and smells to distract me from my fears of the worst. Whenever I focused on looking out the window, I relaxed into the experience. I felt fine in the hands of the man at the wheel.

Which brought to mind: who was at the wheel of my life? I mean, was it really the driver? He certainly didn’t have control over the other cars. And I had much less control of the situation! It was crystal clear that on this trip, and in my life, something greater was in the driver’s seat. I’m in the hands of the Divine Driver. I can whine and worry about it, or I can sit back, enjoy the scenery, and learn from the experience.

 

More trust and acceptance

The next day we traveled on to the ashram. Vaidehi and I were assigned another driver who spoke only a handful of words in English. Our curious questions wouldn’t be satisfied, and we had to believe in his ability to get us to our destination.

Back on city streets again I noticed that, despite the recklessness and chaos, pedestrians appeared unconcerned about crossing the street. They slowly, gracefully, strode across, sometimes without a glance at the coming cars, having faith that everyone’s timing worked out. I would have sprinted through, frantically scanning back and forth!

This was something distinctive about Indian culture. I rarely saw a driver lose his temper. No one seemed bothered when someone passed them, nor for a near miss. Yet, in the US, people regularly are infuriated over mild annoyances. It’s a battle of the egos on the freeway in California, but in India, not a hint of personal reaction. Their trust and acceptance of circumstance was contagious, and I relaxed into a comfortable cross-legged position in the back seat.

 

Riding buses

Nine days into my stay at the ashram, I had my initiatory experience of riding in an Indian bus. Twenty-five of us westerners piled into an old bus charted for the ninety-minute trip to visit a local orphanage.

The week before, a woman I met on the flight to Trivandrum recounted her bus ride to a charitable, state-of-the-art hospital. On the return trip, she held the bars that went across the open-air windows with one hand, and a piece of metal from a truck traveling in the opposite direction scraped the skin off her knuckles! Although the heat was intense, I avoided the windows and sat on the aisle. We returned without incident, but I wondered what a regular, unchartered bus ride would be like.

My opportunity came another week later, while enrolled at a cultural arts center in Aranmula. I was low on rupees and needed to make a trip to a bank – into town 20 km outside of our village. It was time for the adventure of taking a bus by myself.

The staff at the arts school was kind enough to write down the destination and the return trip in Malayalam (the local language) to show the fee-taker. I took a seat and settled in for the ride. Relax – trust the Driver, I said to myself.

Arriving safely in Chengannur, I went about my business and then sought out the large bus depot for my return. About 7 lines of buses, coming and going, with their destinations written in Malayalam – how would I decipher which one to take?

Trust the Driver; somehow, I’ll be taken care of. After asking around if anyone spoke English, I was connected with a kind, middle-aged businessman destined for the same bus. He assured me he’d let me know when it arrived.

Thirty minutes went by; when would it arrive?  I had a music lesson in 30 minutes! But impatience does no good in India – trust and wait.  Finally, the man signaled and we scurried over and boarded. Many people looked after me, assuring I got off at the right stop. Yes, someone else was the Driver of this journey, and I could trust that all was in order.

 

Let go of control

Back at home, I know my life is guided by some Divine travel engineer. Would I really want to see everything up ahead on the road? The time that my father had heart failure, when my tires blew out on the freeway, or when I passed my licensure exam? Having the knowledge, would I be more or less anxious, or bring about a different outcome? If I hadn’t been a little nervous for my exams, would I have been too cavalier and failed the test?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that when I release the need to control my destiny and circumstance, I heave a sigh of relief. Peace envelops me. I become present and better able to respond to whatever arises.

So I sit back, roll down the window, and let the wind blow through my hair. I watch the beggars on the street, the temple elephants parading, and take it all in. Here in the moment is my life. The Divine Driver knows best the next destination.

 


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