Driving a taxi in Kolkata

I imagine myself brave.

One of my enduring memories from India happened within minutes of arriving. 36 college students touched down, and together we left the airport. Joel, our guide and arranger of every detail, had taxis waiting for us.

I was giddy. I threw my suitcase into the trunk of this heavy metal, yellow car. I climbed in the back next to my sweaty travel mates. Joel gave us the name of the hotel, shouted it to the driver. We left.

My eyes were stretched wide. The smell, the hot breeze from the open windows. I was chattering with my friends. Lots of “Look!” and “Wow!”

I’d studied Bangla from a book before we left. I had flash cards. I asked the taxi driver his name. Apnar nam ki?

I was shocked by my own ability, like dipping your toe in a lake and feeling the cool, pleasant water overpowering your fear of what’s beyond the surface. I asked him if I could climb in the front seat using the words ‘Can I’ and gestures.

I asked him about his family. He asked me if I wanted to drive the cab.

I should have been terrified. Kolkata traffic is a wild helping of cars, motorcycles, buses, bicycles, pedestrians, tuk tuks, and rickshaws all making their own decisions, all deeply concerned about their own way out of the mess. I was instead overwhelmed by an opportunity and took the wheel.

Within an hour of landing in Kolkata I was driving a taxi.

There was no power steering. I swung wildly down a side street coming close to a sidewalk railing and then to an old woman selling fruit on the sidewalk. Neither budged. I  leaned and pulled on the wheel, swerving, my heart pounding, the excitement of this swirling new world slowly coming into focus the closer I come to running over pedestrians. I started mumbling, “I don’t know…about…this.” Suddenly our two lane road was filled with three cars all heading my direction and trying to pass each other. At that moment I gave up. I didn’t have the Bangla to tell him I was finished, so I settled for simply letting go of the wheel.

The driver laughed, grabbed the wheel and righted our veering car back into it’s lane.

As quickly as it came, my fear was gone, and I was back to delight. It is a wonderful thing when the adventure you imagined delivers it’s first great moments right when you get off the plane.

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