When asked what my favorite part of my experience in India was, I immediately respond: driving. It was also my answer to everyone who asked me while I was actually in Tamil Nadu, and it was a response that usually provoked a hearty round of laughs. However, I am absolutely serious. I loved and anticipated our little trips every day because driving was a thrilling and an unpredictable experience which completely and perfectly encapsulated so many of the emotions I had over the course of my trip.
From a wide lens, the landscape is simply stunning. There are enormous, towering mountains that shadow the horizons around Coimbatore on every side, often melting into the cloud line with dissolving wisps of fog. Though it was the rainy season, while we were there the sky was almost invariably a spectacularly crisp blue, which only served to bring out the vibrant colors that were all over the landscape. From the pastel houses that made patchworks of villages to the dotted fields, innumerable posters on buildings to the random stores of colorful clay pots along the roadside, and the busy streets lined with fruit shops and hardware stores and everything imaginable, the sheer variety in the color pallet of the city and the surrounding countryside was remarkable.
However, the truly exhilarating part of driving was taking this portrait and putting it into motion. Driving on the left instead of the right is inconsequential compared to the other insanities of the road. Whereas in the United States, if you honk it is plain obnoxious, honking is a constant and essential part of driving in Coimbatore. This is because motorcycles outnumber the cars ten to one, and everyone drives in the middle of the road or even on the completely opposite side as they swerve through each other, so you have to honk as you go around every corner so that people know you are coming. Combine this with the things we saw on the roadside and it was an experience unlike any other. Women in saris of every color and pattern carried wire bags and baskets on their heads. Dogs lay in the middle of the road as motorcycles swerved to avoid them, basking in the sun, completely unfazed by the chaos around them. Skeletal cows with painted horns sauntered casually along the roadside. Donkeys hopped along with their back feet tied together so they would not run off. Children in school uniforms played volleyball in the yard before class. Goats tied up along fences in packs attacked the grasses and food strung above them. It was a whirlwind every time, but also a strangely relaxing and out-of-body experience.
Yet while exhilarating, with a critical eye driving also provided the opportunity for us to see so many of the issues that plague rural Coimbatore all at once. We saw people with disabilities walking along on the side of the road. Piles of trash slowly smoldered and blurred the perfect blue skies. Bottles of brandy littered the streets and the alleys and the fields and everywhere you turned. Human and animal feces lay along the roadside. It gave us an impression of the starkness of the poverty and the scope of the population, as much as we gained an appreciation for the richness of the culture and the beauty of the country.
Still, the best part of driving was the conversation. The CORD driver who took us to and from the villages every day, Mani, speaks little English, but through our very extraordinarily limited Tamil and his limited English we were able to communicate enough, and we learned more from each other just from spending time together, communicating non-verbally, and sharing in what we saw outside the windows. On other days, driving was the time when me and my two fellow GROW interns had the most ridiculous and pointless, and also our most thoughtful, frustrating, and empowering conversations. It was a safe space and a perfect time for us to reflect and discuss all of the joys we were having on the trip and all of the frustrations and emotions we were feeling as well. On other occasions, it was a time to talk about home or to simply talk about nothing at all, which was an essential part of our adjustment and our processing of everything we experienced.
We spent so much time in the CORD truck, with just us interns driving to and from the office, or with any number of CORD workers going off to do our daily work. It was always a battle of generosity to determine who would pile in the back first to leave the middle seats open for others, and we always made many stops along the way for people to jump in and out, or for Dr. Meera to talk to people and stop for odd errands along the side of the road. We would all squeeze into the one car (at one time I think we fit 12 of us at once), and just had so much fun laughing and bonding with the amazing staff that we all grew to love and admire so much. These adventures spent in the CORD truck were animated and exhilarating, and make up some of my most vivid and treasured memories from my time on GROW.
by Michaela Simoneau