Friday, March 12, 2010

A Baptism of Fire

"Baptism of Fire" a phrase with an ancient etymology, used through the centuries to mean many things including theological purification, a rite of passage and martyrdom on a flaming pyre. The French commandeered the idiom, baptême du feu, during WW1 and used it to refer to a soldier’s first experience under fire in battle.

Since then the phrase has morphed and evolved, and in modern vernacular it means doing something for the first time as long as it’s done the Hard Way.

Flying straight into the filth of Delhi as a first travelling experience for example, or climbing a multi-pitch sea cliff with no walk-off the first ever time you tie into a rope, or perhaps being made to treat a patient on your first day as a medical student.

I’ve heard the phrase a million times but never has it been used as aptly as when describing Pete’s first few days on the job as a Hot Rock driver. This is a story about Pete.

Put yourself in Pete’s shoes for the next 5 minutes….

Close your eyes and imagine:

Pass your truck driving test on British roads, then wait 10 days for the paperwork to come through. On day 11 you hop onto a plane and fly east to India. Swap British rules for games of chicken, trade British predictability for wacky races, exchange smooth British tarmac for the surface of the moon and then half the width of all the roads and cover what you have left with a menagerie of cows, goats, pigs, dogs and small children…. And only then are you approaching an accurate portrayal of Indian roads.

It’s your very first day on the job, and you climb into the cab, start up that truck for the very first time and, leaving Amritsar and its stunning Golden Temple behind, motor off into the Himalayas in search cool weather and long unclimbed lines.

Problem #1 – the main road out of town hasn’t been built yet. Driving slowly through cow-jams and past roadworks with no roadworkers, the road gradually turns to dirt dotted with potholes and crossed with water-worn runnels. A few miles more and the road has disappeared altogether, and with it go our hopes of an easy drive.

Problem #2 – gravity. We wind our way up into the mountains, negotiating switchback after switchback, with a precipitously craggy hillside plummeting down to our left. Driving on, we try to ignore the daunting maw of the river raging at the bottom of this precipice, and we huddle ever further into the safe shadows of the vertiginous cliffs looming above us on our right.

Problem #3 – steadily narrowing roads. Now BiRT is 2.4m wide (a waistline slightly larger than most local trucks) while most roads are about 2.5m wide. No problem therefore, until oncoming traffic comes careening round the blind mountain corners, which it does terrifyingly often. More than once we scrape the side of our poor truck against the wall just to keep all the wheels on the road and not over the edge!

Problem #4 – with BiRT’s above-average waistline comes above average weight (18 tonnes – we keep trying to put her on a diet but she seems to finds weight loss quite tricky.) Ripples of panic and distress are common as the edges of the road repeatedly crumble under her weighty mass, and 17 pairs of eyes watch small pieces of blacktop tumbling down and down and down and down and down and....

All the while, you are driving and the responsibility for these 17 lives sits firmly on your petrified shoulders.

Problem #5 – not only is BiRT fat and heavy, but at 4.1m she is also really quite tall. Unfortunately, the road has often literally been cut out of the hillside. Worryingly frequently, on many of the scariest corners, the road is nothing more than a skinny band of crumbling tarmac with a rocky roof jutting out ominously above it, often only a few inches higher than BiRT.

Reversing is impossible anywhere because the road is too small, and the moment we hit a ‘ceiling’ a few inches lower than our roof, we’d be faced with grinding our entire roof off

And so it continues for mile after beautifully green sub-Himalayan mile, and hour after slow, silent and tense hour. That nothing catastrophic happens that day is miraculous, and to say that Pete's nerves are a little frayed at the end of it would be an understatement of stratospheric proportions.

Day 2 dawns. Day 2 working on your new job.

Problem #6 – a bridge 2 inches lower than the top of BiRT. Cue wading through a fast flowing glacial melt river to see if we can find a ford through it, we decide that we can’t and commit to a 65km detour on even smaller roads.

Problem #7 – paddy fields. We turn up the narrowest road we’ve seen yet, we slow to about 10kph and pootle uphill for about 4km before we round a corner to find our path blocked by an oncoming truck.

We try to get past it. We fail. Instead, we drive straight into a paddy field. Our wheels are dragged deep into the bog, the suction stops us dead and we are going nowhere.


Now add up the costs and consequences:

4 days to find vehicles that are capable of extracting 18 tonnes of metal from a sucking bog.

3 pathetic recovery vehicles that the government keeps arriving with, each of which weighs less than half of BiRT and is never going to pull us out, and each of which we break in the process of trying.

2 massive hydraulic cranes which eventually do manage to lift us out.

1 closed road, closed for the duration of the rescue.

And perhaps the greatest cost of them all – one very damaged pride – Pete’s.

We did gain a little fame though – apparently our story, complete with photos, made the front cover of the major North Indian Broadsheet.

Surely a Baptism of Fire to remember!

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