Last month,during a rather protracted incarceration in a hospital room as "Attender" for a patient, i had to learn to live with the constant background score of wailing sirens. The ominous, panic-laden tone of the Ambulance siren has always thrust a clammy fist into the gut , right from childhood........... There used to be a schoolgirl ritual of hurriedly crossing fingers as soon as the dreaded siren was heard......
One gloomy day, while looking down from the ward window, at a speeding, shrieking ambulance, i caught a stray remark from the corridor: " This is one vehicle no one is keen to ride in !....."
Life has been full of comings and goings ; From here to there. Movement. Throughout life we use so many modes of transport. I counted on my fingers to see how many kinds i would have used till now. Surprisingly , fingers fell short !
Every kind of vehicle traveled in is inextricably linked to memories of a certain place.
A few of those :
* The Jatka Gaadi
Fondest memories are of the Jatka Gaadi of Mysore. Also called Tongas (for what reason they were named after a Pacific Island, i have never found out). I love the shape of the mysore jatka-gaadi, its so elegant and functional. Our family was loyal customer of a cartman named Pappiah. I still remember his short, high pitched " Hai" as he goaded his brown horse to either trot gently or to speed up. His cart always smelt of green grass and turpentine. Just before Dasara every year, his cart got a complete make over : Glossy oil paint , new shiny tin+brass trimmings around the two small mirrors on the interior, side panels redecorated with kitsch figures of wavy haired, winged angels holding floral wreaths. And the horse got a new head gear , a jaunty spray of red feathers. In the Tonga, male passengers always sat in front, females at the rear , facing back ; luggage, if any, in the cradle- like hold at front. Breeze in the hair, the huge wheels sliding smoothly over the uncrowded tar road, the merry clip-clop of the horse's feet all made a journey in the jatka such a joyful experience.
* The Villu Vandi
The covered ox carts of a Thanjavur village, native place of my mother. It makes me seem ancient, but once upon a time, we did ride in the villu- vandi 4 miles to " town" to see interminably long, B&W musicals in " touring talkies". On such outings, the treats we never failed to extract were the luridly coloured , sickeningly sweet soft-taffy, pulled like Play-Doh and fashioned into watches around our wrists by the vendors.
( A typical tamilnadu Villu Vandi - an old print )
*Jinrikshaws of Madras
When we visited grandparents in Madras town (- or Patnam, as it was always referred to by old timers-) grandma sometimes took us in the Kai-Rickshaw. Modelled after, and deriving the name from, the Jin-riki-shas ( meaning, "man-powered-vehicle" ) of Far East, these plain and simple carts were pulled by lean, ebony skinned men dressed in just one strip of white loin cloth ,who often ran barefoot .It dint seem right to me, even as a child, that a human being should labour as a draught animal for other humans. Thankfully, they were soon banned by the state government and replaced by the Cycle Rickshaw. ( But they lingered on in Calcutta.) Even now, the memory of those rides makes me squirm in mortification.
* The Coracle ( Parisal )
Whoever thought it up first deserves a commemorative statue, i'd say ! I mean, had i been a riverside dweller, it would never have struck me in a hundred years to just pile into a spare basket and float down to the bazar on the other bank, in style ! Ingenious, this hide covered vessel of basketry ! There have been many coracle rides ; my favourite are The Coracles of Thirumukkoodalunarasingapura ( T.Narsipur, for short), near Kollegal . They are real fun.( still in use) So low, it feels almost as if one is sitting on the water. The scenery on either bank is beautiful, the ancient temples creating the feel of timelessness. Egrets, cormorants and other waterfowl squabble in the clumps of long reeds. It is so pleasant and peaceful to sit listening to the gentle swoosh of the basket slicing through water . The lads who pilot the coracles have a few amusing tricks up their sleeve. When in mid stream, they can cause the coracle to go round and round like the spinning of a kathak dancer, by deftly stirring their long bargepoles. Wheeeeee ! for some. Aiyooooo! for some ! ( me, first category).
* Cable Cars
At Singapore, Genting Highlands, Pazhani, Haridwar , Bluff ( to the Hydel Plant, once), the Swiss Alps, many places.......Most enchanted by the short journey at Badaling, near Beijing from the Base Station to the Great Wall. Being a Touristy spot, the station is overcrowded and queue is long. But once inside the bubble car, its just us and the splendid panorama of the endless mountain ranges. As the cablecar glides forward, there's mounting excitement :we spot rubble and parts of The Wall ....... and all of a sudden, like the backbone of a craggy dragon, we spy miles and miles of the Wall perfectly outlining the contours of the ranges. The wall is here, there, everywhere, winding into the haze of the horizon. The scale of the thing is truly amazing. We alight at the East Gate to explore further on foot, amidst much jostling. Up and down, up and down, the wall meanders, with towers and turrets at regular intervals. And peep holes to view the breathtaking vistas.
(Pssst : They say, the slave-labourers who died on duty were ground up with the mortar and made part and parcel of the great edifice. Shudder !)
( Above : Views of The Wall from Cable Car)
On a trip to The Valley Of The Kings in Egypt, we caught sight of Balloons hovering over the site. They could be hired for a spectacular aerial view of the pharoahs' resting place, especially at dawn, when the early sunlight plays a colourful game of chiaroscuro on the dunes. We wanted to fly. But faced constraints of time. And of economics ! Later, we did get to fly a balloon in Siem Reap, over the Angkor Wat heritage site. One small modification here. This balloon is not the free flying kind, it is tethered. Somewhat like going up in an sky elevator. But it did provide us a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the ground plan of the entire Wat and the ancient city - which is not so apparent on ground.
* The Thalys
At the onset, let me make it clear : I hate trains. Much prefer road travel, by any mode. One train ride i did enjoy, though, was The Thalys. I guess it had to do with the novelty of the thing. The high speed , international train running from Paris to Amsterdam through Brussels, Antwerp and Cologne had started operations less than a year before we boarded it. The Thalys belongs to the line of French supertrains called TGVs. and registers a maximum speed of 300 Kph. And was it a lean mean machine ! Snazzy. The chassis is so fashioned that passengers, sealed in soundless comfort, cannot feel the speed at all, except by looking out of the window : the scenery is just a blur ! The excited children called it James Bond Train and insisted on getting photographed with it.
I concede that the accepted spelling is Catamaran, now that the word has crossed over to the English language. And having migrated , the word has also become commodious enough to include a whole range of long boats that are slim, motorised and made of fiberglass. But the Catamaran started out as the Kattu-maram, literally " bound logs of wood" , a long raft of two or three logs lashed together, steered manually with oars and extensively used by the fishermen of the Coromandal coast. Once, in Kovalam, near Mahabalipuam, we sat wondering at the courage of the fishermen , returning at dusk with their loaded nets : their kattumarams were nothing more than rude logs. There was no niche to sit in, no foot hold, no handles. Yet, they rode like proud warlords, standing erect on the raft as it rose and fell with the waves , balancing their oars and retaining their nets almost magically. One has to be a bit insane to take a chance like that, i thought, but the moment a fisherman offered to take us on a 2 km ride in his log the next morning, i jumped at the chance. It was downright scary, as the log was always under one layer of water and at the onset of a wave, its prow teetered at a mad angle. Just to make us feel safe, the fisherman had wrapped a length of rope around the log and we had to slip our fingers under it for a grip. The spray of the surf drenched us to the bone in no time at all. However, just three quarters of a mile into the sea, the waters became tranquil; no waves, just a gentle heaving. Floating on the maram there was very pleasant. An almost religious experience, i'd say : The sight of the vast open sea all around and the immeasurably expansive sky overhead was humbling and overwhelming. What infinitesimal , insignificant creatures we are !
Back to the begining. Did i say no one ever wants to ride an ambulance ? Well, yes. But we got into such a fix once that we gladly boarded an ambulance for an unforgettable ride. Hari Raya or Ramadan in Indonesia is a three day Holiday when the whole country packs up and shuts down. No services. No eateries ( except coffee shops of some 5star hotels), no nothing. A group of us with kids had arranged with a driver well beforehand (and for an exhorbitant rate) to take us in a van ( an old Mitsubhishi 12 seater) to the tea gardens outside Jakarta for a picnic during Ramadan. As luck would have it, the van broke down. And, to our horror, so did the driver ! He confessed he was trained only to drive and not to look under the hood, so couldn't tell a carburettor from a spark plug. Marooned in the middle of nowhere with sulking kids and a completely spooked out driver, we tried calling up various services we knew to find a spare vehicle somewhere. None available. The very few friends who had personal cars ( its rare there, for all expats use company cars) had gone abroad.It started getting dark and we were on the verge of hysterics when a kindly ticketing agent called back to say, the only vehicle available was The Ambulance attached to a local clinic; would it do ? Like there was a choice !
That outing turned out to be an educational tour for the kids, so what if they saw no tea plantation. Where else could they have learnt how to stow a stretcher or to collapse an IV stand or to tell surgical spirit by smell !