(about 760 words)
When your hands are covered in an objectionable substance, you can wash them with soap and water. When you have something you don’t want in your eye, you can flush it out with eye-wash. But what do you do to rid your mind of a moment of terror, or worse, several repeating moments of terror?
Although it was 35 degrees Celsius with unbearable humidity outside the van, it was 22 degrees and dry inside. Still rivers of sweat poured down my face, my hands trembled, and my stomach had knots that would make a sailor proud. I tried to enjoy the beauty of the countryside that was only rivaled by my Western Canadian home province. The river which separated us from Myanmar was lined with a variety of lush vegetation, including telephone-pole-straight coconut palms. The freshly harvested rice fields provided a checkerboard pattern reminding me of the Canadian prairie farmland and the thatched roof homes framed the narrow black ribbon which served as our roadway. Nominally it was a two-lane highway, but I have seen single car garages that are wider.
I glanced at Jamal, whose hands feathered the steering wheel in a casual manner had not so much as a bead of moisture graced his brown forehead. His eagle eyes seldom left the road in front, but none of the chaos that we encountered seemed to have any effect on his disposition.
A man-powered three-wheeled rickshaw pushed its left wheel as close to the edge of the road as he dared, so as not to spill his three passengers reposed in the bonnet-covered seat behind him. A tom-tom (Bangladesh’s three-wheeled equivalent of Thailand’s four-wheeled tuk-tuks) was passing to the right of the rickshaw, and Jamal was passing to his right, with his right wheel somewhere out of sight below us, obviously not in the ditch yet, or we would be tumbling along the shallow green ditch and we nine occupants of the car could serve as feed for the free-roaming cows and goats.
If this wasn’t enough to cause my palpitations, the oncoming bus, with his lights flashing would be enough to finish me off. Driving on the left side of the road, rather than the right-side, to which I was accustomed, added to my mental scramble. Somehow, a lazy dog sleeping in the middle of the road and two stray goats, had sauntered out of the way seconds before we arrived at their space.
As I stared at the oncoming bus preparing to meet my fate, a miraculous straight line of vehicles formed on the left side of the road, with our van in the lead, followed by the tom-tom with the rickshaw pulling up the rear. The bus, with his train-like horn filling the countryside, passed close enough that I could have written my name in the dust caking the side of the crowded commuter vehicle.
It’s not as if we were travelling at Nascar-like speed; most North American drivers would be embarrassed to drive this slow, but at any speed, a collision with such a bus would make us worthy of a 5th page column in any Canadian newspaper. Jamal never blinked as the scene unfolded time and time again. Yes, this wasn’t a single occurrence; it was a constant collage of events over a three-hour drive to the southern part of Bangladesh.
The only reprieve was when we would pass through a village with its inevitable market place filled with rickshaws and pedestrians, challenging Jamal’s skills at weaving at the pace of one of the local tortoises on the beach. These were the moments when I could look out the window and take in some of the wondrous cultural scenes gracing my vision; hot peppers laid out to dry, a butcher chopping at a carcass hanging from a yardarm, piles of raw rice, and unrecognizable local fruits and vegetables, not to mention the colourful people in unfamiliar garb sitting, walking and sometime laying on or near the dirty roadway.
With my innards bouncing from the rollercoaster-like highway, we pulled to a stop at our destination next to the vast Bay of Bombay. These images of terror were etched on my retina as I walked to deliver a day’s worth of training to our beneficiaries with my cohorts. As the images began to fade, I knew I would have a new set of fresh images to replace the old ones on our three-hour journey home, later in the day. No amount of soap or eye-wash would rid my mind of the images.