May 18, 2010

The Motorcycle Diaries: Of Drivers and the Gypsum Road

Recently I have been to Thimphu for some work of the personal nature and I have had the pleasure of coming across the taxi drivers that ply the Indian highways. They are the dreaded Bolero drivers that ply between Phuntsholing, Gelephu, and Samdrup Jongkhar. I even had the frightening experience of traveling in one.

Of course the road is wide and straight, and the speedometer can climb up to 120 smoothly, but there are also other vehicles plying on the road… container trucks, 16 wheeled, 10 wheeled trucks, jumbo trucks loaded with loads and loads of loads, and other vehicles… and in the roadside settlements, the famous three-wheeled cycle rickshaws, cycles and of course…the animal population. But the Bolero driver is oblivious to all… he just toots the horn and floors the gas.

Another kind is the Coaster drivers that ply between Thimphu, Phuntsholing and Paro.

Yes… Toyota Coasters offer lesser jerks, more comfort and smoother rides but that doesn't mean the drivers should fly along the highway. My heart missed many beats along the route… many a times I secretly prayed to god that the mechanics of the bus wouldn't fail. However perfect the driver is, the vehicle is after all a machine, prone to fail.

Then there are the dreaded Gypsum drivers… those who ply the Samdrup Jongkhar – Pemagatshel highway (especially between Deothang and Tshelingkhor, thus termed the gypsum road, appropriately named since this stretch is dominated by the gypsum truckers.) If you ever ply this road you'll know how fast they are, speeding down the narrow curves fully loaded with 16-18 tonnes of gypsum. They are young and full of 'josh'. The drivers become younger by the year while the trucks become more powerful. From Tata 1210 to 1613 to Terra 16 … from trucks with wooden bodies to steel bodied-tippers … from normal engines to powerful ones – the gypsum road has seen all the changes.

The most recent change is the road. Before, it was just a narrow strip of tarmaic. Now it is a wide, pot-holed, muddy track… thanks to the road-widening process. And this has added to the plight of the two-wheelers like me.

The gypsum drivers don't even slow down whether they are racing up towards Pemagatshel for their gypsum load or speeding down fully loaded with gypsum. And they always travel in packs. Show your displeasure to one and you will be targeted by the others. If he is alone he will boast of having friends. If they are in a pack all will stop. Seems they have a code they live by… or drive by.

Woe be to any driver that has crossed swords with them. In my case if I am alone I always respect these huge trucks when they suddenly loom in front me from around the corner. I smile at them and they appreciate my ride. Knowingly, we smile at each other. I am promoting GNH.

Thus many now know me. They may not know me personally but they know my ride. So I always carry a smile in my pocket for them.

I don't want my cell to end up 'not reachable' or 'not responding' by some cliff or in the bushes.