Off We Go, Apparently: The Art of Winging It

On the road

Our hobbled chariot.

The smell was growing worrisome: it had the fragrance of action figures in a microwave, of an immolating computer hard drive. Burning wires, fried circuitry, sparks and electrical calamity. There were six of us in the Ranger, with two grown adults wedged into the trunk space atop the baggage like so much meaty cargo, and we were speeding down a mountain pass where travellers died about two or three a week. I ignored the growing terror fragrance for some time, until smoke began to issue out from the depths of the vehicle, somewhere amidst all the bags and humans. It became apparent that something was on fire.

We somehow managed to get the vehicle into the parking lot of a Tim Horton’s, and then set to work poking at the trunk door, which was still smoking and hissing. The inside panel was ripped off, wires were disconnected and put back in place, and the door was once more sealed. We sat around outside the vehicle, looking at it suspiciously, as though it was just waiting, trying to lure us back into its death trap.

But in time we all climbed back in, each with a nervous chuckle, and a particular, concerted effort to secure our seatbelts (except for those people in the trunk, who just tried to hold on to the beer cooler and sleeping bags).

We drove another 9 hours in that vehicle, arriving in Calgary at around 4 a.m. We eventually forgot about the constant risk of electrical fire and, we assumed, super cool explosion that would claim all of our lives as we were travelling, and danger was part of the adventure. Plus, there were hundreds of deer along the roadside late at night, each spookily watching the vehicle as it passed, and our concern was more about slamming into so many hundreds of pounds of walking venison.

A lot of being on the road is this kind of abandon. You have a sense of preservation, certainly, but it becomes a little more devil-may-care. What is travel without a little danger, without a little risk? Even more critically, the more dangerous and less comfortable options are usually priced more accordingly. Suddenly your sense of safety and risk-taking is sublimated to your desire to save money and travel on the cheap. As our graph climbs in terms of danger, it also climbs in terms of bargain!

Our rickshaw in Amritsar pulled up to an enormous dirt lot, filled with ramshackle buses pointing in myriad different directions. All of them were derelict and seemed to have ridden through rough decades in post-apocalyptic wastelands, the kind inflicted with both zombies and a nuclear winter. We were led to our vehicle, a red beast with the front fender and grill torn free, several missing windows, and the smell of blood deeply embedded within the inside décor. At the back were our personal glass coffins: as we had rented the sleepers, we were each entitled to a shoulder-width 1.5 metre case in which to cram ourselves and all of our belongings. My window wouldn’t close, the driver had clearly never driven stick-shift or a bus or used his hands before, and a 4-year old child parked directly below our coffins and somehow managed the vocal stamina to scream continuously for 12 straight hours.

It really wasn’t that bad.

We didn’t die, for one. It was fairly cheap, for two. We had selected a rather odd route to take, a path few travelled in India, and thus the only available transport was a crappy company with a crappy reputation. Given that we were putting our faith in the dregs, the fact that we were not killed was already a high recommendation. That we were never robbed, that we were given regular pee breaks, that this chugging old monstrosity never broke down once as it trailed across the desert: all of these things speak to its not-total-suckiness.


Our arrival in Jaipur was heralded by 100 of this guy’s brethren.

It wasn’t a fun trip, certainly. We arrived in Jaipur 17 hours after leaving Amritsar tired, cranky, covered in sweat and dust and cortisol-rich stress tears. But the price had been right, and looking down the barrel of that clanking double-wide jalopy, we shrugged our shoulders and just decided to go with it.

It’s not always about this youthful abandonment, either. Young adulthood carries a sense of immortality, an assuredness that the universe knows just how swell you are and will make sure things don’t go totally awry. With age comes a knowledge of death, a sense that you can’t simply throw your trust on every rickety bridge, on every leaky vehicle, on every snivelling, shifty looking ferris wheel operator. As you age, your willingness to just stumble along into each risky situation declines as you become less and less certain that the cosmos is personally looking out for your safety and would never let such a swell youngster meet a grisly, ironic fate.

Sometimes, the art of going with it just means accepting things that don’t appear to make any sense. Seeing that things are inefficient, seeing that they are weird, seeing that they are being poorly communicated, and just holding on for the ride. Going with it means trusting that everyone likes the idea of getting your money and also not hearing you whine, and will find a way to get you to your destination or checked into your hotel with absolutely all of your vital organs still safely tucked away in your torso. Going with it means trusting that whatever happens, it’ll at least be pretty interesting.

We crossed the border from Malaysia to Thailand at noon, just as a monsoon hit. The immigration line was enormous, and our driver claimed that he would be waiting on the opposite side of the border. Once we were through, he rocketed up the Thai countryside, past rubber tree arboretums and dozens of tropical mosques, until depositing us in a southern transport hub. He spoke hushedly to several women inside of a travel agency, women who would later idly check our tickets and then gesture for us to sit.

The bow

Just get in the boat. Trust me, we know what we’re doing.

As we waited for something to happen, an elderly man approached the agency, talked with the women, and sat alongside us. Perhaps he, too, was headed for Trang, or for some other city beyond. After a time he rose, gathered up our bags, and indicated us to follow him to a very swanky and well-maintained, decades-old Cadillac. He drove us in perfect silence for nearly half an hour, idly fiddling with the radio, tuning it on to this or that English-language oldies station, possibly for our benefit. It was difficult to tell, occasionally he smiled benignly in our direction. In time, he took us to a bus station two towns over, bought our tickets, and directed us to our mode of conveyance. With a gentle nod, he then wandered away from us into the crowd. He asked for no money, gave us no name, and, we liked to think, disappeared in a puff of smoke, Cadillac and all.

And sometimes, you just have to trust that the Cadillac driven by the strange, pleasant old Thai man is going to get you where you need to go. That he has mostly nothing better to do on a Thursday afternoon, and that he and the universe have little interest in tragedy befalling you. You just go with it, because you’re standing on the diving board with nowhere else to go. You can back down and cower, or close your eyes, shrug, and jump.

3 thoughts on “Off We Go, Apparently: The Art of Winging It

  1. haha, the car on the desolate road saw you through… 🙂 and the last pic is simple yet awesome. my sister and i went to Thailand last year and we missed the Cadillac man, dang… am going back there and stake my chance at meeting him, lol. btw, Thais are rather gentle people, don’t you think? 🙂 hey, this post sounds thankful, if i am not mistaken, hehe. warm regards, traveller… 🙂

    • I have no idea how to find the nice elderly man with the Caddie anymore. If he was actually not just a manifestation of our sunburned psyches, he lives somewhere in a town between the Malaysian-Thai border and Trang. We transferred here from our van to a bus in a nearby town, and Cadillac-man was our ride from one to the other.

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