The distance from Hampi, India, to the Nepalese border is 2,200 kilometers, approximately the distance from Phoenix to Seattle. The plan was to drive to Nepal for the short trekking season, and then return to India later to explore the North.
“It’s only 2,200 kilometers,” I reassuringly reported to Sheena. “We’ll be yodeling in the Himalayas in three days, tops.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. If we had the power of premonition we would still have Lennon, the Pontiac Aztec would never have seen the light of day, and I would still have the will to live. But we don’t, and so we began the drive across India, blindly walking straight into the field of rakes.
We left Hampi on roads having a medium number of potholes, which was annoying, and which were criss-crossed by a greater than average number of speed bumps, which was also annoying. For half of the day we pushed the limits of the road, which is to say that we crawled along at a three-legged turtle’s pace.
“Says here we’ll reach National Highway 7 by around lunchtime,” I said, swiping our Garmin with my finger. Sheena shot me a look as if to say, you’d better hope so, you sonofabitch, or you’ve cuddled your last cuddle. By lunchtime we reached National Highway 7, just as expertly predicted, whereupon we stopped at a humble roadside shack for lunch and were shocked when an Ausrian-registered Volkswagen LT40 overlanding truck pulled up next to us carrying none other than our soon-to-be road tripping BFFs, Regina and David—the first and only other overlanders we’d met in India—suckers.
After lunch we parted ways, Nacho being überly faster than Bluff (David and Regina’s truck) on open highways, and we hoped to meet again. Several minutes later everything went to hell, a milestone recognized by virtue of National HWY 7 changing from a four lane proper highway into a two lane wasteland matched only in dishevelment by the streets of Hiroshima circa 1945. As we sailed off of the end of the pavement and into the rubble field, Nacho’s oil pan smashed against the edge of a bomb crater. I pulled over to check that the oil pan hadn’t split—it hadn’t—and we continued on our way, albeit at a snail’s pace, crawling all over both lanes to reduce the impact of falling into the holes formerly known as road. Bluff soon passed us.
As the hours ticked by my wits began to falter. The highway was a parade of overloaded trucks with inventive paint jobs which, every few kilometers, piled up behind and then overtook their comrades who had sustained broken axles or rolled over—those poor impatient souls who drove too fast through the crater field. The driving conditions deteriorated throughout the day, while the scant driving skills possessed by the nation’s motorists evaporated altogether. Cars drove on the wrong side of the road—even when a center divider was present—and trucks and motorcycles entered the roadway without signaling or even looking first, causing me to repeatedly slam on the brakes and think very bad thoughts.
On a particularly straight and excessively potholed section of road on which we crept along at around 10kph, we happened upon a motorcycle cop coming in our direction. Seeing our white faces, his pupils turned to dollar signs and he flipped around, rode up next to Sheena’s window, and attempted not to fall over at such a low rate of speed. He pointed to the roadside, prompting me to let out a stifled laugh—not a funny laugh, but a laugh that let anyone within earshot know that this road had taken away my desire to live, and with it any care of what would happen to me if I lost control and hacked up an Indian motorcycle cop with my Bear Grylls special edition machete.
“Well hello good officer, it’s a wonderfully wonderful day out here on your amazing National Highway 7, now don’t you agree?” A fluent English speaker would match this to my tone and realize that I was a man with no fear, a desperate man. A suicide bomber. He didn’t speak English, save for a few choice words.
“Why yes of course I have a license. And good for you for checking. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Now, as you’ll recall, I just explained to you that I indeed do have a license. If you think I’m going to give it to you, well then you’re terribly mistaken.”
“She license,” he said, pointing to Sheena.
“This pretty little lady here is my passenger. And as you’re well aware, passengers aren’t required to have licenses. Isn’t that about right?” This was easy enough, but I wanted so badly to punch this man in his big, dumb, mustachioed face.
“She license. SHE LICENSE!” He was clearly getting mad.
“Me driver…she passenger…see? Me drive. She sit there and read book. No need license for read book. Understandy?”
“One thousand Rupee,” he demanded.
“Excuse me? Why?”
“One thousand Rupee!”
“I don’t think so. We have a long way to go, so leave us alone.” And at that he gave up and walked back to his bike without another word. Corruption. It might explain how Central India’s primary north-south corridor had been allowed to fall to ruins.
As evening neared and I dangled near the end of my desperate rope, having completed only 300km of slow and painful crawling, we saw a group of Indian men staring at something on the edge of the road much in the same way that they usually gather around and stare at us. As we passed we saw a car with its hood smashed in and a crumpled motorcycle in the road, its rider hunched over but alive, sitting in a pool of blood. Nobody did anything, the spectators just stood and stared.
Distracted by the scene we launched into another crater, smashing our oil pan for the umpteenth time. As darkness fell we found a petrol station, pulled into a corner, and cried ourselves to sleep.
Early morning coffee and oatmeal prepared us for another 12 hours of battle. I tied up our full trash bag and walked to the gas station attendant to see where I might throw it away, at which he motioned with his thumb to toss it over the wall. I said I’d rather not, but he enthusiastically encouraged me to pitch it over the wall—it’s the Indian System, he assured me. Instead I secured the bag to the front bumper and we departed into the post-apocalyptic mine field known as National HWY 7.
Around lunchtime we smashed our oil pan for the bazillionth time while abruptly dropping into a coffin-sized hole in the road, so I again pulled over to inspect it for splits. The formerly perfect rectangular prism had by now become a piece of mutant cauliflower, and had long since developed a leak around the crushed-in oil drain plug. I checked the oil level—a half quart low—and topped it up, got back in the car, and turned the key. The engine refused to start.
Reer reer reer…reer reer reer…reer reer reer…
“FORK!” (actual expletive disguised to maintain at-work readability)
“Oh my!” Sheena said under her breath. I don’t usually swear, so she knew this must be serious. And it was, after all, since this was a new engine for which I had virtually no spare parts, no experience, and no shop manual. I thought about it a little more.
“Fork, FORK!” Could I have added too much oil? Could the air filter be plugged from the endless kilometers of this dirt road incomprehensibly called a highway? I got out, crawled under the van, and readied myself to empty a half quart of oil out of the drain plug. I slowly unscrewed it, and before I knew it hot oil was pouring all over my hands and I couldn’t stop it.
“What the FORK!” I scream-whispered as my delicate hand skin began to melt. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I only had one quart of oil left with which to replenish this Exxon-Valdez! Just when all hope seemed lost I fumbled the plug back in, stopping the flow of molten lava. Soon enough, as always happens in India, a group of men emerged from the woodwork and formed a tight huddle around me as I wiped my scorched hands on an old t-shirt, removed the air filter, and went to work removing the thick mud from its creases.
While I worked, Sheena tidied up the house under the supervision of a deranged Indian man who continually stared at her with mean creeper eyes. She collected several empty plastic bottles and tucked them into the trash bag on the front bumper, an act which enraged the creepy man. He disgustedly followed her, grabbed the plastic bottles out of the trash, and flung them into the trees, and then stared at her like a deranged and infuriated maniac. Who does this woman think she is, coming into our country and exercising environmental consciousness?
Just as I put the finishing touches on the air filter who should arrive but David and Regina. They had stopped in Hyderabad to have their moto rack welded after a legally blind Indian driver had driven full-speed into them while they sat in a turn lane, but weren’t convinced that the welder knew what he was doing, so carried on. I told them we’d catch up in the evening and saw them on their way. As they left, Sheena ran over and informed me that we urgently had to leave, right this second, just throw your tools into the car and get us the hell out of here NOW! The creepy littering man was getting belligerent, and in her assessment we were now in a state of danger.
I threw everything inside, rubbed our Iranian prayer beads, and turned the key—salvation! Nacho roared to life and we sped away (at roughly 10kph) from the threatening gaze of the backwoods Indian creeper, undoubtedly mere seconds before he would have tried something foolish and caused me to turn my torque wrench into a weapon.
We soon stopped at another gas station for a fill up. I carried our trash bag over to the attendant and was again encouraged to throw it over the wall, which both enraged and flabbergasted me. They live in piles of garbage, and it’s all their own fault. I returned to Nacho, secured the garbage to the front bumper, and slammed the door.
“Am I out of my forking mind for wanting to responsibly dispose of this garbage?!” Sheena nervously twisted and pulled out a little bit of her hair, I seethed with rage, and we drove back into the mine field, slamming our oil pan on a concrete ledge as we pulled back onto India’s National Highway 7.