Roadwork Ahead? I Sure Hope it Does.
Updated: Oct 19
A Reflective, creative piece, from Amsterdam University College, Netherlands
India, a country where driving along its roads is at times no different than being on a rollercoaster. The strategically placed potholes provide you with the thrilling and unpredictable ups and downs, the occasional fly that finds its way down your throat and of course, the slight hint of nausea that surfaces after the journey. One is a fun, memorable, adrenaline inducing experience, and the other is a roller coaster ride. Traffic is often misconstrued as being a liminal space when in fact, it presents a unique moment for reflection. The outside world literally comes to a halt as you sit there, waiting to arrive at a destination less exciting than the journey to get there.
Now not all traffic is riveting and the majority of the time it is a painstakingly slow process that makes one flirt with the idea of road rage. But every once in a while, we find ourselves very much in the moment, as we peer through our tinted or non-tinted windows (depending on how much you value privacy or looking shady). In that moment, you come to realize that the roads have been speaking, but you have not been listening. Unlike most countries, India in fact has three lanes in which vehicles drive. The left lane, the right lane, and of course, the middle lane in which cars find themselves driving in both directions. The image you have in mind may seem chaotic but the expertise of Indian drivers makes all roadwork function like clockwork. The vehicles sway, float, stumble, drift, yet the one thing they never seem to do is crash.
There seems to be an invisible coat of protection around each and every vehicle that simply does not allow them to be within 1mm of one another. Perhaps that coat of protection is best portrayed through the blissful screeching and piercing sound of the infamous honk. When in town, after very careful and inaccurate flimsy testing conducted by none other than myself, I noticed that a time period of no longer than 10 seconds is allowed to elapse without the honk making its presence known. All must obey the honk, unless, sometimes, a honk duel presents itself. A most feared situation indeed where two vehicles are alongside each other, trying to be the first to wedge themselves in the crevice between a lorry and rickshaw. This may sometimes even lead to a honk battle royale, where one honk triggers a cacophony of similar yet unique and equally jarring honks. If driving in India does not seem to be enough of a challenge already, let me now present to you the bravest thing any individual can dare to do within this country. Some of you may be thinking of extravagant acts such as showing a fake ID, buying a pack of Gold Flakes, or even, eating a paratha with a knife and fork, all of which require an incredible amount of bravado, but no, I am referring to none another, than crossing the road as a pedestrian. It makes little difference whether you are at a crossing or not, what matters is how you carry yourself as you cross the road. One must have an unparalleled amount of swagger and confidence when crossing, to such an extent that the vehicles see you as a fellow vehicle. That is the respect one must earn when crossing the road in order to make it to the other side in one piece. To the average observer this seems like a mundane act; the casual raise of the hand in the vehicle's direction as the pedestrian waltzes across the worn out tar off the road. However, that very hand raise commands obedience, respect and has an intangible element of fear that it strikes down upon the confused crowd of vehicles. Crossing the road is an art that takes years of practice and can never quite be perfected unless born and raised in the country. One must eliminate all traces of fear from within before undertaking this task and enter a state of meditative trance before going forwards, and very few can manage to do so.
Even after having lived in India for half a decade, I am still wary of crossing the streets. You
mustn’t let your guard down the moment you enter the outside world for the pavement is also fair game. In India, if there is a flat surface, chances are a vehicle has at some point in time trampled upon it. As a matter of fact, it needn’t even be a flat surface for there are none in this pothole ridden country. Theme parks go bust in this land where any car ride takes you on just as many bumps as a rollercoaster ride would. But the madness does not stop there. The number of seats in a vehicle is merely a suggestion rather than a rule. A motorcycle for two has been seen transporting a family of five. A rickshaw for three carries as many people on top of it. I once found myself in a van with space for eight people. By the time the van left, there were 22 people in the vehicle. There I was, propped up on the lap of a man I had never met before, plastered between two other men who huddled against me. The loud Indian sun was also making its presence known and through the sweltering heat, it occurred to me that after an experience like this, I had no choice but to call this place home. Even if the shape and form of traffic changes, its essence remains the same. Traffic is an idea, and as long as there is life, there will be traffic. After having made my incredibly observant observations about the Indian way of vehicles, it occurred to me that this was perhaps not the only land with a chaotic semblance of roadwork. What if traffic was a concept that manifested itself in all parts of the world as cunningly as it did so in India?
My suspicions were confirmed when I stumbled across a European land known as the Netherlands. Despite being just as topsy-turvy as in India, the methods of travelling in the Netherlands are quite different. Firstly their cars are the personification of deception. Appearance wise, they seem just like regular bicycles, and one would be inclined to believe so when seeing it with no driver. I say driver because once again I emphasize that these are not bikes and only look like them. I will now go into why I am making what seems to be such an outlandish claim and am willing to bet that you will side with me after having read why. Upon arriving in Amsterdam to begin my studies, one of the things on my to-do list was to purchase what I thought to be at the time, a bike. I was told that I would require one and immediately understood why when I set foot out of Schiphol airport. What appeared to be an ordinary sculpted mass of metal is transformed into a glamorous metal steed when mounted by its owner. The grace, the beauty, and the power one wields when on a bike in the Netherlands was something I had never before seen. It was as though the person and the bicycle fused into this omnipotent bionic being. All conventional vehicles that we are familiar with bow down in the presence of these mystical beings through a magical process known as 'having right of way' and nothing dares to stand in their way. What made the Dutch traffic stand out to me even more so than in India was the fact that now I played an active part in it. The transition from being a passenger to suddenly being a driver opened my eyes to a realm that I had no idea existed beforehand. Playing a role in the traffic gives one a sense of purpose that a spectator could never even fathom. Immediately I began wondering how I would have perceived traffic in India had I been a driver rather than a passenger. That wonder was immediately put to rest when I remembered the mental turmoil it required to simply cross the road as a pedestrian. It was clear that if I couldn’t even cross the road without feeling fear, I still had much to learn before even contemplating the idea of taming a vehicle in India. When I set foot in the Netherlands, it quickly became obvious to me that I had some research I had to do. No one wishes to be a disruption in the midst of a smooth flowing circulation of vehicles and in order to avoid that I began my homework. Firstly, they drove on the wrong side of the road. I will not tolerate any ifs, buts or maybes for it is indubitably the wrong side of the road. There was no other way for me to get accustomed to this blasphemous rule than to simply learn through experience. It began with baby steps, literally. I would walk along the street as though a deer, perpetually on my guard and shooting darting looks in every possible direction, at times even skywards. After living in India, I braced myself for the worst possible outcome. Eventually I got used to it. The next step was to familiarise myself with all the different modes of public transport such as the metro, tram, and train which I initially believed to simply be synonyms for one another. Fortunately it only took me two and half years to wrap my head around which was which. Once I knew of all the motorised vehicles, I was under the foolish impression that I had covered all my bases. If you thought cars and other motor vehicles were scary, you are in for a rude awakening if you ever visit the Netherlands. There seems to be something in the air that grants these bicycles with the power they possess, something that is not present anywhere else in the world. In other parts of the world, bikes are the peasants of vehicles, yet in the Netherlands they live and prosper as kings, the monarchs of all forms of transport. However, riding a bicycle in the Netherlands is not as easy as one may think it to be.
You cannot simply buy any bike, you need to find your bike. J.K. Rowling's theory of the wand choosing its owner was in fact inspired by the relationship that exists between the bike and the bike. You do not choose your bicycle, it chooses you. As you step into the dark and small little bicycle shop owned by a kind looking and welcoming Turkish man, you are blown away by the sheer amount of bicycles that are lined up alongside each and every corner of the room. You scale up and down the seemingly endless rows of bikes, and begin to observe and think about the chemistry you wish to have with your bike. It is perhaps the most intimate act you can experience, right after sex. Could it be the old yet dignified looking bike basking in the sun, reminiscing its days of former glory in the back of the bike shed? Perhaps the young rising star that fell to drugs and alcohol after suffering a punctured tire? Or maybe even the sleek black bike at the front of the shed with its hip pedal brakes, the fuck boy of bikes dare I say? The right bike will find you and you will find the right bike and all will be happily ever after. You will tame each other, perfect one another and love each other. You will have great times together going to the park, and sitting down while reading a book, and you will also have tough times together when google maps will let you down and leave you to find your way in the dark blistering cold. But you will make it through all of these situations because you will have one another. And just when things are at their peak, your bike will probably be stolen and you'll have to start again and find a new bike, while always keeping an eye out for what was once yours, hoping to recover your long lost bike which ended up becoming a part of you. A part of you that will never be recovered, and now belongs to the Netherlands.
Revision Process: The editing process of this piece was greatly helped by the input I received from my workshop. Even though I did not include a Dear Author letter, I found that the feedback I was given in class pertained to areas of the piece that I hadn’t even thought required revision. One of the main points of tension I received feedback on was the transition between the part when I talk about India and the one where I discuss the Netherlands. Initially I had intended for that change to be quite abrupt because that was how I’d experienced it but I believe the way I executed that didn’t necessarily communicate what I had wanted. Therefore I decided to make the transition smoother and am much happier with the form it now has. Another tip that helped me was being told to read my piece aloud and I found that it allowed me to spot where the flow of the reading was perhaps a little clunky and needed to be rearranged. Reading it aloud also helped quite a bit with my punctuation, especially with my placement of commas which I was grateful for. Something that left me conflicted for a bit was about the length of my sentences which I received both positive and constructive criticism on and I was left wondering whether or not I should make it more concise. Although I did try to make the writing more refined, I found that if I made it too concise, it no longer felt like the writing was authentically mine. What I ended up doing was finding a middle ground between saying what I wanted to say but also reading it over a couple times and trying to make sure that I say it in as ‘me’ a way as possible. This was also a piece where I was really allowed to let myself speak which was a change from the fiction type of writing I usually do and it was a refreshing change.
Photos and original written piece by Tariq Ahmad Sayed Hassen, Writer.